By Kim Scheeler and Pat Gottschalk

It was cause for celebration when Amazon announced Virginia as the site for its highly sought-after HQ2. Not only was it a huge announcement for our state, but it also signified a shift in the economic development world. One of the main reasons the Virginia Economic Development Partnership was successful in its bid was because it tied its proposal in with the workforce pipeline.

We hear it every day: There is a current workforce shortage that will only grow larger as baby boomers exit the workplace. We know from our research that 36% of the healthcare workforce, 29% of the education workforce and 35% of the construction workforce in our region will need to be replaced in the next 10 years. That’s more than 65,000 people in just the top three demand industry groups. And that doesn’t take into consideration the increased demand from a growing economy.

This is great news for the students of today but a challenge for our region. If you’re a student, identify jobs that will be in demand and focus on the skills, education and certifications that it will take to succeed in those jobs; gain those skills and you’re pretty well guaranteed success in life. We have a good idea which jobs will be in demand. What we struggle with is identifying the knowledge and skills required for those careers. We also need to do a better job of helping parents and students understand what it costs to acquire those skills and what those jobs will pay. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out what you want to do when you grow up.

The challenge to our region is the competition for workers. If you’re a business owner who can’t find the people you need with the right skills, you have to go where you can find them. We have two choices for building our future workforce: We can educate the students in our community or we can attract the talent from other communities. While we are becoming an attractive place for millennials, we do our community a disservice if we don’t prepare our young people growing up here for a successful future.

As a society, we’ve taken a broad-brush approach to education over the years. Parents want their children to be more successful than they were. In the past, as a general rule, more education equated to more opportunity for success — some degrees generated greater success, but the general rule held true.

However, as the demand for higher education has increased, so has the cost. The need for more specific skills has grown to the point that the general rule doesn’t necessarily apply anymore. Parents and students alike face the dilemma we hear about quite often. Some students today are graduating with more debt and less opportunity than they expected.

We are fortunate in the commonwealth that leaders in our education system are working on adapting to this changing world. They understand that we need to do a better job of aligning education with real-world opportunities. Rather than just education, the focus is becoming education toward what end. That means helping students and their parents understand what the jobs of the future look like and how to go about becoming qualified for them. It also means focusing our efforts on the jobs that will be in high demand and encouraging more investment in education that aligns with those jobs.

Businesses are doing their part as well by participating in events like Mission Tomorrow, which exposes all the public school eighth graders in our region to a variety of job opportunities. Junior Achievement is working with students, teachers and parents to help them understand the cost of education versus the salary you can expect for a multitude of jobs in our region. Many businesses work with the Career Technical Education programs in our school systems to provide internship opportunities for students to gain practical knowledge and decide if they really like the work or not.

On Thursday, ChamberRVA in partnership with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce is hosting an education summit to explore some of the opportunities, challenges and great work that is taking place in our region on this issue. We’ve invited legislators, educators and employers to share their perspectives on what we can do and are doing to create more opportunities for our young people to succeed. It’s open to the public but space is limited. Go to chamberrva.com to sign up.

We are excited about the opportunities that the future holds for our youth, but we want to do all we can to make sure that every student in our region has a chance to succeed in life and find meaningful and rewarding employment. It’s going to take additional work by all of us, but it’s the most important thing any of us can do.

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Kim Scheeler is president and CEO of ChamberRVA. Contact him at kim.scheeler@chamberrva.com.

Pat Gottschalk is a partner at Williams Mullen, served as state secretary of commerce and trade under Gov. Tim Kaine, and is chairman of ChamberRVA. Contact him at pgottschalk@williamsmullen.com.

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