ABINGDON, Va. — Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Tom Barkin visited Abingdon on Monday, engaging with educators, business leaders and politicians in a roundtable discussion on workforce development.
“I came here because, as we have done our research, this seems like the kind of place that has worked successfully against the barriers that so many other small towns have,” Barkin said. “Education is strong. Technology has been deployed. You’ve got a hardworking set of people. So what I’m trying to understand is: What are the remaining barriers?”
For more than an hour, officials gathered at the United Way of Southwest Virginia in Abingdon to share ideas of what could stimulate the region’s economy, which, until a few years ago, depended largely on the coal mining industry.
“To a degree, we’re mourning a loss of an industry,” said Mary Trigiani, senior vice president of strategic planning and development for New Peoples Bank.
And, said Brian Austin, superintendent of Lee County Public Schools, losing mining jobs has trickled down into the eradication of affiliated occupations like welding and general construction.
Barkin’s visit also focused on the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s signature youth workforce development initiative, Ignite, which seeks to spark interest in careers by connecting schools and students with employers and employees.
Education officials like Austin said collaboration among localities is necessary to attract more businesses to Southwest Virginia.
“Our product has to be regional,” said Trigiani. “That’s the story that’s going to attract people.”
Barkin agreed, as he noted the area’s “cute towns” and assets like the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
“Part of my objective is to be able to put forward what it takes to win,” Barkin said. “And one of the things that I walked away from here is there’s a better opportunity to tell the story, particularly to future employees — people who are leaving town who may not see the opportunities that are going to be here and may want to come back.”