Young professionals discuss working in W. Va.
“The Struggle to Stay” has become somewhat of a catchphrase among the younger generation of West Virginians.
The term caught on after a 2017 series by West Virginia Public Broadcasting with the same name. That series chronicles the lives of people who’ve watched friends and neighbors move out-of-state, and have to decide for themselves if they have the heart-and the financial ability – to remain. The program has sparked conversation about what can be done to make WV a more viable option in the decision to stay or go. Shepherd University hosted an event on the subject with by Generation Eastern Panhandle, an offshoot of Generation West Virginia, a statewide organization dedicated to attracting and retain young people.
“One of the things that Generation West Virginia likes to say,” said Rod Snyder, a lifelong Jefferson County resident and vice chair of GWV, “is that as young people we should be the biggest cheerleaders of West Virginia, but also the fiercest critics. And if we’re going to have an authentic conversation about the state, it’s going to include both the good and the bad.”
Snyder moderated the event as he presented questions to a panel consisting of Mike Chalmers, owner and editor at the Observer newspaper; Shane Broadwater, owner of two Shepherdstown businesses, The Green Pineapple and Cloud Matic Smoke Shop; Natalie Friend, an eighth generation farmer at Tudor Hall Farms and a regular participant in the farmer’s markets; and Aneesh Sompalli, operations manager at Valley Health Urgent Care in Ranson.
“We all know the statistics about the challenges around West Virginia,” Snyder said. “We are losing population faster than any other state in the country. We have the poorest health outcomes of any state in the country. There are significant challenges that are often barriers for young people who are making a decision about where to live and work and build a life and build a family.”
Each panelist’s familial ties to the panhandle helped play a role in their decision to stay or return to the area.
“I really enjoy what I do because it’s about serving the community that I grew up in,” said Sompalli. “For me, West Virginia has given me a lot of opportunity. What I do currently is rewarding to me because I feel like I can give back to the community I grew up in.”
The others shared a similar affinity for giving back to their community and regularly interacting with the public.
“It was important to me that I gave a lot of people work-that I allowed a lot of freelance people to explore the craft,” said Chalmers.
Trends indicate young people want to live in or move to a location that has a lot going on, things to do in the community and leadership opportunities, in addition to the availability of jobs. When asked what they would change to encourage young people to remain in the state, the panelists had several ideas about change.
“Get corporations out of Charleston,” Chalmers said. “As far as I’m concerned, everything that’s not working about this state is because Charleston is beholden to corporations-whether it’s fossil fuels or big pharma, you name it-you can crack all the way down through the problems and the issues in this state and it trickles back to some big corporation that everyone feels beholden to and no one is willing to change for.”
Chalmers went on to say that, with different conversations than the ones that seem to keep occurring in Charleston, West Virginia could be “pulling in renewables in a way that really explores a massive growth to manufacturing and really trying to change the landscape of what West Virginia could produce and be a producer for.”
Panelists also addressed issues such as quality of education and support of small business through tax breaks, including the need to increase teacher pay and educational standards, citing West Virginia’s next-to-last education ranking compared to the other 50 states.
“If we could keep the teachers here instead of going to Loudoun County-all these places outside of the state – it would definitely boost the morale of the children coming out of high school and any type of public schooling in general,” said Broadwater.
“There’s so many more investments we could could put into schools and even vocational schools-we can’t forget about trade schools. These are places where we can give West Virginians opportunities,” said Sompalli. “If we’re talking about retaining people and drawing people, we need to focus on education because education drives a lot of things for our local economies.”
Panelists told the Shepherd students in the audience to consider staying in the area, citing the convenience of West Virginia’s location to other major cities, the multitude of natural resources and outdoor activities available and the recent openings of microbreweries and trendy dining establishments.
“We live withing four hours’ driving distance to about two-thirds the entire population of the United States,” said Friend. “In four hours, people can have our products. That’s huge. West Virginia has a huge potential to reach so many people.”
Friend added that residents should support small local businesses.
“When you’re driving over the mountain, so are your dollars.”
“If you want to succeed and if you want nice things, you’re going to work your a- off,” said Chalmers. “But if you like West Virginia and you think this is a place where you stay or at least stay for a little while, then work your a- off here.”