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Peninsula Business Leaders Discuss How To Attract More Employees To The Workforce

How can Peninsula businesses attract more employees to the workforce?

That was the crux of a discussion during a meeting The Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce held on April 26 as part of its 757 Vision series. The virtual event, entitled “We’re Hiring! Workforce Development in the 757,” focused on ways to improve workforce development in order to lure new workers to area businesses.

Guest panelists included David Gillespie, president of Virginia Technical Academy; Casey Roberts, executive director of New Horizons; and Dr. Porter Brannon, president of Thomas Nelson Community College (soon to be renamed Virginia Peninsula Community College). Shawn Avery, president and CEO of Hampton Roads Workforce Council, served as moderator.

The panelists discussed workforce development and avenues they’re taking to attract, educate, and employ students in Hampton Roads. Avery said that the area is facing serious, unprecedented times when it comes to workforce development and talent in the region.

“We have low unemployment rates that are hovering around 3-percent in some areas, which is fantastic during normal times,” said Avery. “But, at the same time, we have very low labor force participation rates and working individuals who are underemployed that are working multiple part-time jobs.”

Avery said the Hampton Roads Workforce Council is striving to close the gap between the needs of business and industry and available talent in the region. The organization recently launched a “Let’s Go To Work” campaign with this effort in mind. The goal of the campaign is to assist people with getting back into the workforce and acquiring needed skills. Advertising has been key to spreading the word.

“Through TV, radio spots, billboards, bus ads, etc., we’re really starting to see a difference,” said Avery. “Our numbers are going up in our centers and participation in our job fairs has really gone up.”

Brannon said the community college systems are working in unison to decipher how they’re going to address a 3-percent unemployment rate, while 3,000 vacancies exist across the commonwealth.

“It’s not just community colleges, but all colleges in the commonwealth that are working with the governor and local legislatures to figure out how we’re going to solve the problem of the talent gap and skills gap that we have,” said Brannon. “One of the things that community colleges are doing is really making education and training more affordable. We need to make sure that our learners don’t have to choose between getting a book they need for their cybersecurity class or groceries for the month.”

Virginia Technical Academy focuses on construction trades such as electrical, HVAC, plumbing, appliance repair, and building construction.

“I focus on the students that are falling through the cracks,” said Gillespie. “The ones that did not finish high school, the ones that were doing the Second Chance program with the juvenile detention centers, and the ones going through the bigger houses, the jails, and getting work. Within our first year, we were able to take 250 students and put them back into employment for $18 to $25 an hour.”

Gillespie said there’s a large need for trade workers in the area. The academy works with 155 contracting sponsors and holds private job fairs for its students.

“We have a 98 percent employment rate right now,” said Gillespie. “The 757 is all about putting people back into jobs, employment, and securing their careers, and the Virgnia Technical Academy is all about looking for the ones who fell through the cracks.”

All panelists agreed that today’s employees, especially the millennial generation and younger, are seeking a workplace that looks a lot different than what attracted the baby boomer generation that’s retiring or leaving the workforce early.

“I think there are some unique challenges and that those we’re looking to attract want something different out of the workplace than we may have wanted,” said Porter. “They want their work to sort of reflect their values. They want the option to telework and things of that nature.”

The Virginia Peninsula Chamber’s 757 Vision Series has been focused on efforts that support the region’s recovery from the pandemic and its future economic development. The series aims to identify strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities that will accelerate discussions and provoke action in areas that will positively impact the region’s economic growth.

“The purpose of the series is twofold,” said Bob McKenna, president and CEO of Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. “First, to raise the level of awareness of our great assets; and two, to discuss how we can best take advantage of those assets to reignite the energy, optimism, and sense of collaboration that was present before we ever heard of covid-19.”

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