Job Growth: The Future of Hampton Roads

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – There’s a certain beauty to our area. It’s a place steeped in history, surrounded by sparkling water and breathtaking views, but when you take a deeper look there’s an ugly truth.

“This region, in the last 11 years, has actually been losing population. People have been leaving. If it wasn’t for births exceeding deaths, we would actually be losing population as a region,” says Jim Spore, President of Reinvent Hampton Roads.

Reinvent Hampton Roads is an organization created to identify new ways to create more jobs, and lasting jobs, in the area. Right now the Hampton Roads region is in trouble in that area.

Jobs numbers by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (provided by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission) show, when it came to growing jobs between 2010 and 2013, Hampton Roads came in last out of 35 regions with a similar population. Our area is growing jobs at a rate 1/4 the national average.

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Let’s break those numbers down even further. Since 2010, the Charlotte area added more than 167,000 jobs for 13.5 percent growth. Raleigh added more than 86,000 for 13.2 percent growth. However, in Hampton Roads, the total number of jobs added totaled slightly more than 17,600 for only 1.8 percent growth.

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That’s a problem, and it’s one many residents spoke with say it all comes down to lack of cooperation.

“I think each city is for themselves,” says Charles who lives in Hampton Roads.

“I think Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach are in it for themselves,” says Christopher Stephens of Virginia Beach.

“It seems like it would make the most sense to sit down together and work as one rather than separate entities,” says Kimberly McVey of Virginia Beach.

Jim Spore says he can guarantee that cooperation is already happening, citing his past experience as City Manager of Virginia Beach.

“I absolutely know for a fact that the cities can work together. We have worked together on many things. I think we can do a better job and I think if you really understand this economy, and I think most of the cities do, that a job that’s created in Suffolk is going to benefit people in Portsmouth, it’s going to benefit people in Virginia Beach, people in Chesapeake and so on.”

He does admit collaboration, though, isn’t always easy.

“That’s really the challenge, getting people to collaborate, getting the 17 cities and counties to work together better, perhaps, and focus more on really improving our economic performance. It’s no longer just good enough to hope that the federal government spends a lot of money down here on defense. We’ve seen the last three or four years that that’s certainly not the case. Defense spending has dropped or flattened and that’s caused us to really lag the rest of the country in terms of growth.”

Spore says he does have ideas to make the job growth happen.

“We need to move away from our total reliance on the military and tourism and the port, and certainly cherish those as the three stools of our economic foundation here, but we also need to diversify that economy.”

The question is, how?

“Biotechnology for example, unmanned aerial vehicles, cyber security, modeling and simulation. There’s lot of existing strengths in the region. One of the ways that we believe we can really jump-start that growth is to focus on those clusters where we’re already fairly strong and continue to grow that area of strength and that will sort of act as a magnet in terms of creating additional jobs in those areas and make them even stronger.”

Senator Mark Warner agrees and says we should use those strengths, especially when it comes to building driverless cars and drones. He wants them built and developed in Virginia.

“Leveraging Langley, leveraging Oceana, and so many of our navy and other sites. Leveraging Wallops in terms of the ability to test some of these drones over the ocean. We could make Virginia the leader in unmanned systems.”

Warner also has a laser focus on the mass layoffs at the shipyards. Most recently, those of BAE systems.

“You’ll see at the shipyards and elsewhere, layoffs and then increases in employment. If we can smooth that out with a little more predictability, you’ll see a lot less disruption in the local economy, and one of the reasons why we need these two-year budgets and get away from the stupidity of sequestration and shutdowns,” says Senator Warner.

He also expanded on the need for cyber security pros to grow from the Hampton Roads area.

“Cyber Security is going to be a problem that’s going to be with us for decades to come, and we’ve all read about the OPM breach. We’ve read about Target and JP Morgan. I can assure you virtually every company in Virginia, the Chinese have attempted to hack it. So, we need more people in the pipeline out of William & Mary, and Norfolk State, and Hampton, and ODU training in the cyber field. We’ve got a lot of military installations here that are interested in cyber. We’ve got a lot of intelligence facilities in Northern Virginia. I want Virginia, and Hampton Roads in particular, to be a cyber-leader.”

You might be wondering how long it will take to see the job growth in Hampton Roads.

Spore points out, “We still have not recovered the jobs that we lost in the great recession of 2008, 2009, and 2010. We’re still about 20,000 jobs below where we were then. So, we’re gradually coming back. The rate that we’re growing right now, it’ll be another 3 to 5 years before we even get back to where we were in 2008.”

He also says, “When you’re talking about transforming a regional economy, that’s an effort that’s going to take, perhaps, 10 years. A generation perhaps. We’re going to try and come up with some short-term actions, there will be some momentum that we can build, get people excited about it, but I think the real transformation is going to be a long haul. This is a marathon.”

Both Warner and Spore agree there is an urgent need to find new ways to grow jobs in the 17 cities and counties of the Hampton Roads Region. It’s time to turn that ugly truth into something we can be proud of.

“We’ve spent lots of time talking about this. It’s time to start doing some things that will really make a difference over the long haul,” says Spore.

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