By Lynn R. Mitchell
There was a summit over the weekend in Roanoke showcasing the city as Millennnial-friendly and a great place to work and live (see Our View: The young and the restless — and Roanoke):
It’s hardly a news flash that the economy is changing. The Roanoke and New River valleys have a small but interesting base of technology companies to build on, usually ones you’ve never heard of because the products they sell aren’t ones for the general market.
One problem they face, though, is finding enough workers. That’s hardly a Roanoke phenomenon; a recent survey by the Technology Councils of America found that 74 percent of executives at tech companies say they face a labor shortage, with about one-third calling it “significant.” Both those numbers are up from the last survey two years ago.
If the region wants to grow its niche of tech companies — or see others spring up — they need to be able to find the workers here. Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam says he knows of two companies that started in Blacksburg and then picked up and moved to Austin, Texas, because that city has a bigger labor pool (and also was willing to write big incentive checks).
Austin is one of the cities that pops up more and more in any list of “cool” places to live (evidently, those rankings don’t take into account temperatures in August). Which came first: The chicken or the egg? That we still don’t know, but we do know this: Increasingly, people are moving to a place they like, then figuring out the job situation later.
Ever been somewhere that never gets below 100 for days at a time in the summer? That’s Austin. I know. My sister lives there, and I’ve experienced heat so intense it burns your feet through the soles of your shoes. But I digress. The editorial added:
And make no mistake, those technology jobs are the key, says Enrico Moretti, a California economist and author of “The New Geography of Jobs.” The New York Times reported his findings this way: “For every college graduate who takes a job in an innovation industry, he found, five additional jobs are eventually created in that city, such as for waiters, carpenters, doctors, architects and teachers.”
So even if you’re not one of those college grads in an “innovation industry,” all this still matters. It’s called economic spin-off.
So a revitalized city with “hip” things to do draws them. Richmond, after years of languishing behind Charlotte, finally found its footing and now features many draws for Millenials, techie and otherwise, in housing, breweries, restaurants, entertainment, festivals, and the big draw — the James River and all it has to offer.
Roanoke’s weekend event addressed how to attract the young people needed for tech companies in the area, something noted by Beth Doughty, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership:
“The good news is that we have an opportunity presented by 25 colleges and universities in a 60-mile radius,” she says. “Not many regions have that in their pocket. We have to engage and ignite that relationship and this program [Xperience 2015] is by no means the be-all-end-all answer. But it’s one thing that tries to leverage that opportunity.
“Overall, we need to get serious about finding ways to take advantage of the audience of college students and give them a reason to consider Roanoke in the same conversation as Charleston, Charlotte, Nova, Richmond.”
I’m looking forward to seeing Roanoke become more hip so the tech corridor can continue to grow in southwestern Virginia.