by Dick Hall-Sizemore
The Tobacco Commission (Virginia Tobacco Region and Revitalization Commission) has come up with a program that does not involve pork-barrel grants.
Two of the problems afflicting the area served by the Commission, Southside and Southwest, are a shortage of people to fill certain jobs and a shortage of young adults putting down roots in the area. Its Talent Attraction Program is designed to address both problems. Under it, young graduates working in certain field can get up to $48,000 in student loans paid off.
The program is open to anyone graduating since 2019 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Each participant must commit to living in the area for 24 months and working in one of the following areas:
- Public School Teacher in Science, Math, Technology/Computer Science, or Career and Technical Education (Grades 6-12)
- Public School Special Education Teacher (K-12)
- Speech Language Pathologist
- Physical Therapist
- Occupational Therapist
- Industrial or Electrical Engineer
- Information Security, Network, or Computer Systems Analyst
In addition, a participant must “become significantly civically engaged in their community by volunteering with local non-profit or government activities, such as the United Way, Ruritan Club, Junior League, PTA, citizen committee for local government, local fire/EMS, food banks, youth sports coach, etc., with a total annual engagement of at least 50 hours of work.”
For the first two years, a participant will receive up to $12,000 annually for student loan repayment. The awards can be renewed for an additional two years.
The advantages of the program are its targeting of employment areas in which there is a need for people and its requirement of civic engagement, with the hope that participants will develop ties to their communities and stay beyond their two-year commitment.
Because the program is just in its first years, it is too early to gauge its success. According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch and the Roanoke Times, to which I am indebted for calling attention to this program, for the 2019 cohort, there were 120 applicants, of which 92 were accepted, and 73 who wound up fulfilling the requirements the first year. For this group, the Commission paid out $670,000 in loan repayments (an average of $9,178 each.) They are still in their second year; therefore, it is not known how many have completed their total commitments. The 2020 group consisted of 91 applicants and 77 acceptances. If they fulfill the requirements, that would be $1.35 million in loan repayments. Most of the participants have been teachers.
This program is not going to answer all the problems of Southside and Southwest Virginia. For example, it does not create jobs. But, it does help fill the existing jobs that are proving hard to fill. It also provides an incentive for recent college graduates from the region to return home to live and work, as well as attracting new college graduates to the area. Finally, it helps alleviate the college loan burden that these graduates may have. Hopefully, applications to, and participation in, the program will increase. Also, it is hoped that the commission will evaluate the program in five years to determine how many of its participants stayed in the area.