Rural Va. Localities Face Aging Work Force Challenge

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By LARRY O’DELL Associated Press Writer
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Population and aging trends suggest that many rural Virginia communities will find it increasingly difficult to provide a competitive work force, according to a new University of Virginia study.

The study by the university’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that during the next decade, 825,000 Virginians 55-64 years old will reach retirement age. That is 11 percent of the state’s population – up from less than 9 percent six years ago – and the percentage will grow as even more baby boomers age into retirement, the study says.

The situation is particularly acute in 11 counties where at least one quarter of the current work force will reach retirement age by 2016. Northumberland County leads with 38 percent of its residents 55-64 years old, followed by neighboring Lancaster County at 32 percent. Both are Chesapeake Bay communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Young people from these rural counties and others tend to leave for college or work, the study says. As a result, the “emerging work force” of Virginians 18-24 is concentrated in college towns and urban areas.

“While small and rural communities may offer certain dimensions of a high quality of life, the absence of employment opportunities presents significant disadvantages to these communities in attracting younger workers,” said Qian Cai, author of the U.Va. study.

Northumberland County Administrator Kenny Eades knows that firsthand. His son and daughter – ages 22 and 21, respectively – went off to college and are now working in other localities because there are few opportunities back home.

“What’s a shame about all this is it’s a great place to raise children,” Eades said Thursday. “My own children got to experience nature basically just in their own back yard.”

County officials have discussed how the aging population and the exodus of young people will affect the labor market but have not come up with a strategy to deal with it, Eades said.

“There’s not a clear-cut, easy answer to it,” he said.

Lancaster County had some success by establishing a technology park a few years ago, said county Supervisor F.W. Jenkins Jr., but residents realize their remote community will never be a big magnet for industry and their children likely will seek their fortunes elsewhere.

“In some ways you just have to accept it,” Jenkins said.

Some of the best opportunities on the Northern Neck appear to be in the service sector because of the influx of retirees who want to live near the water, the officials said.

Those retirees, Jenkins said, probably would not want the county to attract a lot of new industry even if it could.

“If your investment here is your house and your retirement, you’re not as anxious to support things that may be seen as development,” Jenkins said. “And working people who might be more supportive of bringing in development are so busy trying to eek out a living that they don’t have time to worry about it.”

Nelson County is trying to combat the graying of its work force by enticing young entrepreneurs to move their businesses to the peaceful hills southwest of Charlottesville, said Maureen Corum, the county’s director of economic development and tourism.

“It’s a very pastoral setting, and this younger population is attracted because of the outdoor activities,” Corum said.

Twenty-seven percent of Nelson County’s population is in the 55-64 age range, according to the U.Va. study, but Corum said many of those residents don’t work in the county anyway. More than 60 percent of the county’s residents commute to jobs in other jurisdictions, she said.

“People would rather travel an average of 34 minutes to a job at a business that they wouldn’t particularly want in Nelson,” she said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
By LARRY O’DELL Associated Press Writer

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Population and aging trends suggest that many rural Virginia communities will find it increasingly difficult to provide a competitive work force, according to a new University of Virginia study.

The study by the university’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service found that during the next decade, 825,000 Virginians 55-64 years old will reach retirement age. That is 11 percent of the state’s population – up from less than 9 percent six years ago – and the percentage will grow as even more baby boomers age into retirement, the study says.

The situation is particularly acute in 11 counties where at least one quarter of the current work force will reach retirement age by 2016. Northumberland County leads with 38 percent of its residents 55-64 years old, followed by neighboring Lancaster County at 32 percent. Both are Chesapeake Bay communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

Young people from these rural counties and others tend to leave for college or work, the study says. As a result, the “emerging work force” of Virginians 18-24 is concentrated in college towns and urban areas.

“While small and rural communities may offer certain dimensions of a high quality of life, the absence of employment opportunities presents significant disadvantages to these communities in attracting younger workers,” said Qian Cai, author of the U.Va. study.

Northumberland County Administrator Kenny Eades knows that firsthand. His son and daughter – ages 22 and 21, respectively – went off to college and are now working in other localities because there are few opportunities back home.

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