Dickenson County robotics team

The first team from Ridgeview High School in Dickenson County to win a state championship was its robotic team in 2018. That team went on to the world championship in Detroit, where it placed ninth out of 64 teams.

Sometimes common sense solutions to entrenched problems are hard to sell. Exhibit A is the shortage of mid- to high-tech private and public sector jobs in many of Virginia’s rural areas, especially in the coalfields of far Southwest Virginia.

Most people west of Roanoke generally know that the three major coal and natural gas counties of Dickenson, Buchanan and Wise are also ranked as some of the poorest counties in the state. More specifically, they rank in poverty as follows: Dickenson, No. 1; Buchanan, No. 5; and Wise, No. 11, out of 134 Virginia counties and cities.

The question then becomes: Can the labor base in far Southwest Virginia be trained for mid- to high-tech jobs that can be handled in satellite facilities? Do we have the high-speed internet capacity and the DNA, despite the negative presumptions that suggest we do not?

Yes, we do. Wise’s public school system is ranked fourth best in the same 134 jurisdictions in Standards of Learning (SOLs) testing in math, science and reading scores, while Dickenson is ninth. Dickenson’s sole high school recently won a state robotics championship and placed ninth in world competitions. Two of Wise’s three high schools have recently won statewide forensics competitions, with Wise Central winning two back-to-back titles.

The most recent SOL scores prove that far Southwest schools improved upon their first-place scores from last year, while the rest of the state’s regions lost ground. We have a gold mine of talent here, ready to be mined with local job opportunities.

Why do I concentrate on only three of the seven so-called coalfield counties? Because these three counties combined produce more than 90% of the state’s coal and natural gas and are being hit the hardest revenue- and population-wise by the decline of coal and gas production. Buchanan, for example, has lost nearly half of its population since the 1980s. Dickenson is not far behind and, although Wise has done somewhat better due to having a few more options, its new housing permits issued last year were approximately a dozen. That statistic alone is shocking in a county of approximately 38,000 residents.

If Virginia’s private and public sector leaders decide that unfilled mid- to high-tech positions can and should be offered to the state’s poorest rural counties to incubate jobs that pay above average salaries then — and only then — will smart, young rural-based Virginians have options other than out-migration. In time, if the governor’s office by executive orders combined with the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 deciding to make procurement laws more equitable, these chronically poor communities could start to build a tech economy.

Just recently, Gov. Ralph Northam kept his campaign promise to promote rural jobs and brought Amazon representatives and a gleam of hope to the small coalfield town of St. Paul to discuss the idea of training and retaining the region’s smart kids to work where they wish to live, namely in their own communities. This small town is also located along the Clinch River, which is world renowned for its biodiversity.

These very attentive Amazon folks met with local leaders at the newly renovated Oxbow Center, where the University of Virginia at Wise is poised to open an international river-based ecology center and cybersecurity research, development and incubator venue. These types of tech jobs, depending upon levels of complexity, pay several times more than minimum wage and will steadily help replace good-paying jobs lost to the decline of coal.

Bluntly put, Virginia’s current procurement procedures and urban-based bias leaves the state’s rural counties in the cold. With high-speed internet already in place (the most powerful fiber capacity known to mankind sits waiting in the aforementioned three coal counties) many private sector and state agency jobs can be fulfilled in the hardest hit parts of the commonwealth. The state need not look outside its boundaries for solutions to a shortage of tech workers. Accelerated apprenticeships here, where we call home, can help fill the void.

If good faith efforts such as these are made, then the state’s only regret will be that this not-so-radical idea should have been implemented sooner. The ultimate questions are how far can the governor go through executive action and matchmaking big tech with rural Virginia, and how much will the state need to accomplish legislatively to give rural children a chance at good jobs and the option to reside in the places they call home?

One thing is for certain: Giving our economically disadvantaged yet very smart, young, rural talent a chance to stay in the regions they love and become tomorrow’s rural leaders really is not that much to ask.

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Frank Kilgore is an attorney in St. Paul and has for decades been involved in coalfield economic development, conservation and youth development programs. Contact him at: frank@fkilgore.net

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