Billions of public dollars have been spent to boost jobs in rural America, yet there seems to be a huge disconnect among policymakers trying to determine if our countryside, especially the Appalachian region, has the DNA and capacity to handle internet-based tech jobs. Thousands of these high-paying jobs go unfilled in urban areas — or worse, outsourced to other countries — while the capacity to perform this type of work in rural America is overlooked due to hardened stereotypes held by urban-based policymakers.
Negative slurs casually thrown toward sparsely populated geographic locations smear a big segment of America and also are peddled by writers such as J.D. Vance, whose rags-to-riches memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” has somehow become the new excuse to write Appalachia off as unsalvageable. This book, based on one misfortunate child’s dysfunctional family, has been gladly embraced as an excuse to further disenfranchise 30 million Americans. The real irony is Vance wasn’t even born and raised in Appalachia and, even more ironically, it was his Appalachian grandmother who pushed him to go to school and “do good,” despite her own shortcomings. Wanting our young ones to do better than their elders is a very deep Appalachian tradition.
Vance’s self-promoting thesis and the arrogance of writing a memoir at the tender age of 32 notwithstanding, rural America can and should be the go-to place to fill these high-tech jobs. Rural areas have less traffic, lower costs of living and usually a more friendly culture than found in many cities. My past decades of experience indicate that many eastern and northern Virginians have a negative attitude toward the Appalachian section of the state that lies west of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even more vigorously castigated is the far southwestern portion of the state, where coal has been mined for more than a century. Our region gets pummeled by the media as if Li’l Abner is a real person and being country and patriotic is, well, somehow unpatriotic.
So, if facts matter, let us take a brief look at our often-maligned region.
The students in our rural mountainous counties are No. 1 in the state in math, science and reading Standards of Learning.
Let that sink in: They beat the schools in very rich Northern Virginia, Albemarle County and the Eastern Seaboard.
These mostly impoverished yet competitive brainiacs also consistently win state championships in robotics, forensics, scholastic bowls and theater, not to even mention sports.
Moreover, our region has some of the best internet connectivity in the state.
More than $160 million of investments have greatly enhanced the seven-county coalfield region’s internet capacity.
The three most distressed coal counties — Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise — have carrier-class fiber backbone and “middle mile” fiber that can serve businesses and other users that locate alongside the main transportation arteries in those areas.
They have access to virtually unlimited bandwidth and multi-gig point-to-point connections as well as redundant paths to the internet in Ashburn and Atlanta.
These vastly underused services currently reach a very limited but appreciated number of data centers, high-tech businesses and higher educational institutions.
This capacity is being actively built out to expand rural residential broadband access. In other words, our very rural (and uniquely scenic) region can prove that it possesses the capacity to host high-tech jobs in a venue that is home to some of the state’s smartest kids. Most importantly, these assets already are in place.
As always, identifying a chronic problem does little good without offering a solution.
For starters, the executive branch of state government can do a lot by “outsourcing” many state agency jobs to hard-hit rural areas within the commonwealth. Second, when private tech companies come calling, the Richmond economic development gurus should send some of them our way.
Fifty good jobs here have the relative impact of 500 jobs in and around urban areas. Whether it takes executive orders by the governor or changes made by the state legislature to revise biased procurement laws, corrective action is needed.
It doesn’t take a study to conclude that wherever there is a lack of jobs and hope, those vacuums are replaced with poverty, drugs and crime. So instead of blaming the residents of an area that struggles with those problems, why not tap the potent talent here? Many smart Appalachian kids want to stay in their ancestral homeland and help make it better. When we lose them, we lose our future leadership. It is a sure bet that our gainfully employed young people will be much more grateful and respectful of the area they call home than J.D. Vance.