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Agee and Fralin: A key moment to invest in affordable talent pathways | Columnists

Nothing opens the door to opportunity like education. Lives are transformed by gaining the knowledge and skills needed to land a good job and launch a career, support a family, and give back to the community.

This is the proven path to upward mobility for individual Americans and to prosperity for our communities and country. But today some obstacles lie in that path that we need to work together to remove.

Too many young people and adults invest heavily in education and training that is not well aligned with current and emerging job opportunities. Others struggle to afford postsecondary educational opportunities at all. Many lack the cost and benefit information needed to make good decisions.

Some of these problems trace back to choices our state has made. Although our top-ranked higher education system is among Virginia’s chief competitive advantages, we shortchange it — and the students it serves — financially.

For example, Tennessee in 2020 invested $10,969 per student, and North Carolina spent $10,742 per student. In contrast, Virginia provided only $6,519 per student.

The obstacles on the employer side are formidable, too.

A recent national survey of CEOs found that the lack of qualified workers is the biggest single impediment to business growth, a finding that matches our own experience here in the Roanoke Valley and around Virginia.

Our state’s loss of talent after graduation is especially disturbing. Recent studies show that the number of young Virginians leaving the commonwealth for better jobs elsewhere has been growing.

One way to keep talented students here is to connect them with Virginia employers via internships before they graduate. Such experiences benefit students, preparing them for the workplace and helping them pay for college. But the Virginia Chamber of Commerce recently reported that, although 70 percent of Virginia employers would like to hire interns, only about 10 percent actually do.

The good news is that these challenges represent opportunities, and business and education leaders in Virginia are working together to address them.

Take a look at the “Growth4VA” proposals presented by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC) (, the “Blueprint Virginia 2030” workforce and education recommendations by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce (, and the GO Virginia Foundation’s initiatives to address regional workforce needs (

These organizations agree that Virginia’s strong revenue position creates a once-in-generations opportunity to invest in affordable talent pathways: programs developed collaboratively by educators and employers that enable students to move efficiently from learning to earning, with a work-based learning experience along the way and a full-time job here in Virginia as the end result.

The new state budget proposed by outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam addresses the affordability aspect well. The General Assembly will determine the mix of funding for student financial aid and for operating support that relieves tuition pressures. Whatever that mix, we hope our legislators will maintain or increase the overall affordability investment contained in the introduced budget.

But investing in affordability without also tackling the talent development and alignment challenge is a formula for continued under-performance and workforce shortages.

Here’s where Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the General Assembly can make a huge difference:

First, let’s scale up internship offerings regionally and statewide so that every Virginia student and every Virginia employer who wants to participate in a work-based learning experience has that opportunity.

The foundation has been laid for this win-win arrangement through the Virginia Talent and Opportunity Partnership (V-TOP), a collaboration between the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) that gives students and employers the tools they need to connect. This partnership was initiated by the General Assembly in 2018 when it created the Innovative Internship Program at VBHEC’s urging, and it is strongly supported by business and higher education leaders.

Governor Youngkin, Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke, and Republican Del. Carrie Coyner recently proposed new investments in internships through V-TOP. The General Assembly should approve this bipartisan initiative.

Second, let’s use our very successful GO Virginia regional collaboration model as the mechanism for incentivizing development of industry-specific talent pathways in each part of Virginia.

When employers in an industry sector or cluster come together with community colleges and four-year institutions to align curricula with workforce needs, incorporate work-based learning, and provide first-job opportunities for students, everyone benefits. Virginia can and should be the national leader in incentivizing talent pathways development.

Governor Youngkin’s newly announced plan to invest $75 million in talent pathways through GO Virginia is the right way to start.

Finally, let’s make targeted investments in educational programs that address our most serious workforce shortages.

The success of the Tech Talent Investment Program adopted in connection with Amazon’s large Virginia investment shows that our higher education institutions will respond creatively when a clear degree or credential target is identified, and funds are set aside.

We should use that successful model to help meet other high-demand workforce needs, especially in healthcare where today’s severe workforce shortages will continue unless we take creative and decisive action now.

Virginia can be the Top State for Talent if we invest strategically in business-education partnerships that create affordable talent pathways for all Virginians.

There’s no more effective way to meet our workforce needs, grow our economy, and create better job opportunities in every part of our dynamic and diverse commonwealth.

Nancy Howell Agee is president and CEO of Carilion Clinic. She chairs the GO Virginia state board and is vice chair of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council.

W. Heywood Fralin, a longtime business leader in the Roanoke Valley, is past chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. He currently serves on the GO Virginia state board.

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