Business and nonprofit leaders gathered for the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Regional Economic Outlook event last week had one thing on their mind: keeping the region’s workforce growing for the area’s expanding businesses. To do so, they said, two things will be necessary -- regional collaboration and high-quality education.
Northern Virginia Community College President Anne Kress’ message for the business people gathered at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner: With the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 and an otherwise growing tech sector, having a high-quality, yet inexpensive education and job retraining resource like a community college system will be crucial for the area’s workforce.
Calling the economic changes afoot the “fourth industrial revolution” in her keynote address, Kress said developments like automation, cloud computing and machine learning make it essential that workers be able to continuously further their education and that colleges continuously update their science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) offerings. With six campuses and more than 75,000 students, colleges like Northern Virginia Community College represent the future of workforce development, she said.
“Simply put, Northern Virginia runs on NoVa grads. It provides the deepest talent pool in our region,” Kress said. “And we’re right in your backyard.”
While Amazon’s 2018 selection of Arlington for its HQ2 development garnered lots of attention, the Northern Virginia tech boom has been going on for more than a decade. According to a 2019 report by nonprofit trade association CompTIA, technology-related employment in Northern Virginia has increased by 27,700 jobs since 2010, and the industry now comprises more than 10% of the state’s workforce. Amazon isn’t the only big name contributing to the growth. Last year, Google announced that its workforce in Northern Virginia would double with new data centers and offices throughout 2019 and 2020.
But Terry Clower, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, said the region’s challenge is twofold when it comes to filling technology sector jobs: A tight labor market makes attracting talent more expensive, and a massive housing shortage drives up the cost of living, making the area less attractive to potential transplants. In that regard, he seconded Kress’ point that training and retraining Northern Virginians would be crucial.
“Amazon, if I recall, is talking about 4,000 jobs over this next year [in Northern Virginia], but some of those are going to be your workers,” Clower told the audience. “We’re not going to bring in 4,000 new technology people from across the country in one year and here, for one thing, we don’t have enough housing inventory on the market to have a place for them to live.”
Regarding the current state of the region’s economy, Clower and the rest of the event’s speakers agreed the area is thriving. The region’s 2.1% unemployment rate is lower than the national rate of almost 4%. And according to Clower, Northern Virginia accounted for 45% of the Washington metro region’s job growth last year.
Most of that success, Clower said, was built in to the region’s makeup and less susceptible to outside influence. But, he added, some of it could be attributed to a presidential administration that has made defense spending a priority, which could change after the November election.
He also warned that in his mind, at some point the rancorous political climate would start to affect the region’s desirability.
“Our politics has become so negative that I can’t help but think that … it creates a bad vibe,” he said.
A number of speakers at the pro-business meeting also warned against a push in the Virginia General Assembly to boost unions and do away with the state's “right-to-work” law. On Tuesday, a Democratic bill to repeal the long-standing law passed a House of Delegates Labor and Commerce subcommittee on a 5-3 vote.
But there was also a sense from some of the speakers that a collaborative spirit among the region’s competing municipalities was starting to take hold, bridging what ALS Association CEO Calaneet Balas called the “Potomac Ocean.”
Citing a 2018 compact between the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to fund Metro and last year’s agreement between Virginia and Maryland to widen the American Legion Bridge, Balas said she is hopeful that the jurisdictions are starting to work together rather than at cross-purposes.
“We’re trying to get to where we can actually paddle across that [ocean]. We’ve seen movement in this area,” Balas said. “... A few years back it was the Metro compact, obviously the bid for HQ2 that brought together our economic development authorities. But I think we would all agree we still need to continue for that regional collaboration.”