by Erin Burcham, director of talent solutions
Managing an asset has changed the narrative of the Roanoke region. By recognizing the outdoors as an economic asset, the region has successfully moved its story from railroads to “Beer, Bikes, and Brains.” The successful transformation began by recognizing that the outdoors – water, mountains, and trails – are more than just wallpaper. They are an economic asset that can be monetized through new businesses, tourism, and other economic activity generated by new residents attracted by our outdoor culture.
This region is rich in other assets and perhaps the example of how the outdoors is paying off is the launching point for recognizing and developing them all. Take higher education for example. The Roanoke Times editorial of Dec. 18 was correct that the 25 colleges and universities and 100,000+ students in a 60-mile radius of Roanoke are a huge asset that can be leveraged for further economic success.
To be sure, every school has long demonstrated economic impact through salaries, expenditures, and in other ways. But consider the economic impact that their most important asset – the students – can have on our region. The Roanoke region and its businesses are in a competition for that talent. Overall regional employment is at an all-time high and initiatives such as the Roanoke Innovation Corridor make the need even more acute. Add natural demographic shifts (there are almost 40,000 people in the Roanoke region workforce over 55) and it gets harder to keep up. Businesses know they have to compete not just with other companies but with other parts of the country to attract and retain the best employees.
An important part of the solution is right around the corner (or at least in a 60 mile radius). Shame on us if we don’t have strategies to leverage the asset of talent that is incumbent in the region’s many colleges and universities.
The Roanoke Regional Partnership is turning its attention to talent attraction. Just as we helped develop outdoor assets into an economic sector and a new community narrative, we are turning attention to leveraging our higher education assets into fuel for growth. It is part of a three-pronged strategy: create a pipeline for regional college graduates to feed into local business, attract top talent from around the country to strengthen the workforce, and retain talented high potential workers in the region. There now is a full-time director of talent solutions at the Partnership and the first priority will be to turn the higher education assets into a pipeline for economic growth. The educated 20-somethings who are driving out of the region on graduation day are the region’s best and still least tapped asset.
Yet, it’s a job for all of us. So many have adopted the outdoor narrative of the region. Did you SEE how many people were at Go Fest? That is part of a strong livability and career story, too. Show your own children and their friends that today’s Roanoke region isn’t exactly the same place they grew up. There’s a food scene. A beer scene. And an outdoor scene that is one of the best on the East Coast. And in the most economically diverse metro area in Virginia (Moody’s), there are careers waiting to be started, too.
(As published in The Roanoke Times opinion section on Jan. 9, 2018.)