An introduction to the gap between the worlds of learning and work in Southwest Virginia

Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce
A series brought to you by United Way of Southwest Virginia

United Way of Southwest Virginia is the leading non-profit organization in our region and serves as the backbone organization in our community. In our work that reaches across all sectors in thirteen counties and two cities, we focus efforts on improving the health, education, and financial stability of all people in Southwest Virginia.

Our President and CEO Travis Staton said, “United Way of Southwest Virginia operates on an initiative-based community impact model, meaning we take a specific problem in the community and focus funding and efforts to address that problem. We foster collaborations with businesses, non-profits, and community leaders to produce more targeted, focused outcomes and measurable, long-lasting results. We understand that it takes everyone uniting for the same cause to make the most impact on our region’s workforce.”

What’s the current problem we are addressing?

Staton said, “While our unemployment rate continues to be the highest in the state and the need for job growth is a regional focus, the fact that so many young people are not pursuing education or entering the workforce is having far-reaching negative impacts on our region’s workforce and economic vitality.”

There is a gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region. Research from the Virginia Department of Education shows us that less than half of high school graduates in Southwest Virginia go on to further their education; according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2015, in Southwest Virginia, around 3,800 16-24 year olds were not in school or working; and our employers need to fill open positions.

Steve Smith, President and CEO of Food City, said, “As an employer, we experience the challenge of filling some of the job openings within our company.”

But, what are we doing about the problem?

United Way of Southwest Virginia’s cradle-to-career vision concentrates resources on improving outcomes related to creating a strong workforce of the future. Public and private leadership know that cradle-to-career investments made now – with strategic programs, services, and partnerships – will positively impact the economic development of Southwest Virginia and our future workforce.

Initiatives new to United Way of Southwest Virginia in 2017 include this written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series, the Careers Expo for Youth, and the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce breakfast for area leaders in September.

This written “Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce” series was created to shed light on the gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region. In the following nine articles, we’ll explore current challenges in Southwest Virginia’s workforce. We’ll share the stories of local workers and discuss topics that specifically affect our workforce in Southwest Virginia such as local livable-wage jobs, local innovation, the value of working at an early age, the uniqueness of the community college system, and combining passion with skill – just to name a few.

As the written series concludes in September 2017, well-known regional leaders, Steve Smith (President and CEO, Food City), Alan Levine (President/CEO, Mountain States Health Alliance), and Travis Staton (President and CEO, United Way of Southwest Virginia), will convene top cross-sector leadership from the localities of: Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, and Wise, and the cities of Galax and Norton for the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce breakfast. The breakfast is an invitation-only event focused on bridging the gap between the worlds of learning and work, and inviting other community leaders to be a part of the solution.

Alan Levine, President/CEO of Mountain States Health Alliance, said, “Steve, Travis, and I are ready to discuss the current workforce issues faced by Southwest Virginia, the power of a cradle-to-career approach, and the introduction of a new, community-changing opportunity to form actionable partnerships that will strengthen tomorrow’s workforce.”

Our last article will recap the Operation Tomorrow’s Workforce breakfast, and will provide an overview of the actions being taken to bridge the gap between the worlds of learning and work in our region.

Staton said, “The series of articles will showcase Southwest Virginia’s talented workforce. But the fact is, in a few short years, today’s students will be tomorrow’s workforce.  We need to invest in our region’s students.  As a father of four young children, I am committed to seeing our region thrive, not just for their future, but for all our children. If Southwest Virginia is going to thrive, we cannot allow the loss of the great potential we have in our young people — our next generation of game changers and problem solvers.”

Article 1/11. To keep up with the full series of articles or for more information about United Way of Southwest Virginia’s initiatives to equip tomorrow’s workforce, visit

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