10:09 AM

Agee and Treacy: Internships Can Help Reverse the Exodus of Young Talent from Virginia


Nancy Howell Agee is president and chief executive officer of Carilion Clinic and vice chair of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. She also chairs the Virginia Growth and Opportunity (GO Virginia) Board. Dennis H. Treacy is chair of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and senior counsel at Reed Smith. He previously served as rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.

Nancy Howell Agee headshot

Dwayne Yancey and Cardinal News have rendered an invaluable service to the Commonwealth by spotlighting Virginia’s continuing loss of talent to other states (At 14 of Virginia's 39 4-year colleges, most graduates leave the state within a decade of graduation and In some high-demand fields, most Virginia graduates leave the state).  The issue has gained the attention of the State Capitol's decision-makers, and the search for solutions has begun in earnest.

This is very encouraging because our organization, the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC), has been sounding the alarm about this disturbing out-migration trend for the past five years. 

More than just sounding the alarm, our statewide partnership of business and higher education leaders has been urging educators and employers in the Commonwealth to mobilize behind an all-out effort to dramatically expand internships, apprenticeships, and other work-based learning opportunities with Virginia employers.

Experience and data strongly suggest that students who make workplace connections with Virginia employers while in school are more likely to stay in the state for full-time employment after graduation.

According to the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), more than 50 percent of Virginia college graduates report that an internship helped them receive a full-time job offer. More than 70 percent of Virginia businesses, according to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, would prefer to hire students with relevant work experience. Yet, the Chamber also found that only about 10 percent of students hired by Virginia employers possess that experience.

Therein lies a big gap … and an opportunity to help reverse Virginia’s talent loss.

There are, of course, a range of competing views about the causes of Virginia’s net out-migration and what to do about it.  Regional differences and other complexities — highlighted in this news organization’s coverage — deserve close examination as policymakers fashion strategies to reverse this destructive trend. 

But it is always important to start with the things on which we can agree.  Here are three.

First, the statewide out-migration numbers are alarming regarding Virginia’s economic competitiveness. They should create a sense of urgency among the Commonwealth’s governmental, business, and education leaders.

 While some Virginia regions have been experiencing net out-migration and others have seen modest in-migration, our Commonwealth needs to catch up to the states where we compete most vigorously for new business investment. 

North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Texas all have more people coming into their states than leaving them. 

Over time, this will give those states a decided advantage in attracting new business investment since companies locate where they can count on access to a large and capable workforce.

In the near term, the exodus of talent impedes the growth of existing enterprises.  As the Virginia Chamber of Commerce found in its most recent Blueprint Virginia strategic planning process, a top factor already inhibiting business growth and job creation in the Commonwealth is the inability to find qualified workers.

Second, we should be able to agree that informing and shaping the employment choices of young adults must be a core strategy for retaining talent in the Commonwealth.

The demographic data reveals that Virginia’s talent loss is most significant in this group.  And the negative impact extends far longer when the departing young Virginian has their whole career ahead. 

Here's where internships, apprenticeships, and other workplace learning experiences become increasingly important.

When people consider the benefits of work-based learning, they tend to think of the help a paid internship provides in paying for college and the enhanced job readiness and connections students gain from the experience.  From the employer’s perspective, a chief advantage is an opportunity to evaluate the intern’s potential as a longer-term employee.

These tangible benefits can be multiplied many times over if we will stop viewing paid internships as nice-to-have additions to the college experience and instead appreciate their value as essential parts of pathways by which students move efficiently from learning to earning — specifically, from learning at a Virginia college or university to making a living with a Virginia-based employer.

Simply put, we in VBHEC believe many more talented young people will stay in the Commonwealth after graduation if we connect them with Virginia employers before graduation.

We’re not alone in this view.  We’ve been working closely with business leaders, college presidents, and key organizations like SCHEV, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and GO Virginia to dramatically increase paid, work-based learning opportunities for young Virginians as part of talent pathways that lead to full-time employment in the Commonwealth.

Accomplishing this on a large scale will require progress on several fronts, including:

  • Fostering regional collaborations that better align educational curricula with workforce needs and incorporate work-based learning opportunities.
  • Creating on-campus internship centers that develop employer relationships and help students land internships.
  • Simplifying the intern hiring process for employers and providing matching grants to small businesses.
  • Intensively marketing these internship and pathway opportunities to students and employers throughout the Commonwealth.

These internship capacity-building strategies will bear fruit fastest if combined with an intensive push to create talent pathways that address workforce needs in the highest-demand industry clusters in each region.  Such a push will soon be implemented through GO Virginia.

The third point of likely agreement is this:  Scaling up paid internship and talent pathway opportunities is a priority that requires robust and bipartisan support from our elected officials, including those now working on the state budget in Richmond.

On this, there is ample reason for encouragement.

At VBHEC’s urging, Virginia launched its first statewide initiative to expand internships four years ago, creating the Innovative Internship Program.  Through the resulting Virginia Talent + Opportunity Partnership (Virginia TOP), a solid foundation has been laid on which to build.

Last year, through the efforts of Virginia’s outgoing and incoming governors and legislators in both parties, the Commonwealth made an unprecedented investment in postsecondary talent development and college affordability. The biennial budget included significant new support for expanding internships and initial funding for a regional talent pathway development initiative.

This year, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, the Democratic-majority Virginia Senate, and the GOP-led House of Delegates have all endorsed spending plans that continue and expand on those investments.

VBHEC’s members are very grateful for this bipartisan support.

 Now it is time to press forward energetically to scale up the availability of paid internships and other work-based learning opportunities with Virginia employers, make work-based learning a standard part of the higher education experience without extending the time to degree, and efficiently match students with Virginia employers to the benefit of both.

Let’s build on the recent progress so Virginia is not only the best state for higher education but also the best at providing paid internships and affordable pathways to great jobs and fulfilling careers. 

Let’s make Virginia a national magnet for talent, prepare the workforce needed to grow Virginia businesses, and win the robust competition for new business investment and job creation.

And, since we are both doting grandparents, here’s one more thing:  Let’s keep our young people in Virginia where they can raise their families near parents and grandparents, friends and relatives, flourishing in the Commonwealth and communities they know and love.

Working together — educators and employers, Democrats and Republicans — we can get this done.