Daily Press (Sunday)

Now’s the time to invest in internship­s and talent pathways

- By Kirk Cox Guest columnist Kirk Cox was the 55th speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and is president of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC).

In Virginia, we are fortunate to be home to one of the nation’s most highly ranked and successful systems of higher education. That’s no secret in Hampton Roads, where residents and businesses benefit from multiple top-flight colleges, universiti­es and community colleges. In the week ahead, I will be in the region in my new role as president of the Virginia Higher Business Education Council (VBHEC) to highlight how much our higher education institutio­ns contribute to the commonweal­th and our economy. It is time to build on this strong foundation with strategic investment­s in Virginia’s talent.

VBHEC launched our “Learning to Earning” campaign in September because our future competitiv­eness and quality of life depend on our ability to help students move efficientl­y and affordably from our outstandin­g two- and four-year higher education institutio­ns into great jobs and fulfilling careers in Virginia businesses and organizati­ons. A crucial part of these pathways to degrees and industry-recognized credential­s are internship­s, apprentice­ships and other types of work-based learning.

The link between higher education and our economy is a crucial one. CNBC recently ranked Virginia as the secondbest state for business in large measure because we are No. 1 for education. New data shows just how right CNBC is.

VBHEC this year commission­ed the Weldon Cooper

Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia to study what higher education means to Virginia’s bottom line. The results are staggering: Virginia’s public colleges, universiti­es and community colleges have a combined economic footprint that contribute­s $52 billion annually to our gross state product. The system accounts for more than 188,000 Virginia jobs. And it returns approximat­ely $3.8 billion in revenue to the state treasury each year.

There really is no better investment we can make. The Cooper Center pointed out for every one dollar spent on our public higher education system, the result is more than $25 of Virginia gross domestic product and nearly $2 back to the state treasury. This investment of tax dollars more than pays for itself!

Virginians understand and appreciate this impact. VBHEC also recently sponsored a bipartisan statewide survey of Virginia voters to get their opinions of higher education in the commonweal­th. It showed that 83% of voters agree with the following statement: “Virginia’s universiti­es, colleges and community colleges are a valuable public asset of the commonweal­th of Virginia, are well run and are a sound place to invest public dollars.”

The support is truly bipartisan, with 90% of Democrats and nearly 80% of Republican­s agreeing with the statement. You sure don’t see that kind of bipartisan agreement every day!

We know from the impact data that our higher ed institutio­ns drive Virginia’s economy in powerful ways.

We know from the opinion data that Virginians well understand this vital link. Now, we must take this proven value propositio­n and make the investment­s that will benefit the commonweal­th, students, families, businesses and taxpayers.

One way to maximize these benefits is to invest in strengthen­ing the “learning to earning” connection for students and employers. VBHEC’s goal is for every student to have at least one paid internship or similar work-based learning experience. Wherever possible, that experience should be part of a “talent pathway” that leads to full-time employment in Virginia after graduation.

Connecting students with employers early increases the likelihood they will stay in the commonweal­th after completing their studies, helping to meet our workforce needs and enriching our communitie­s.

To highlight these opportunit­ies, we will be holding roundtable­s over the next 10 days in Norfolk and Hampton. We will bring students together with leaders from the region’s excellent higher education institutio­ns and business community to discuss ways to make paid internship­s and talent pathways more accessible for students and more practical for employers. These events will build on successful roundtable­s already held in Harrisonbu­rg, Roanoke and Abingdon, where we discussed great ideas such as providing matching grants to help small businesses hire interns and creating campus internship centers and an online portal to help students and employers make internship connection­s.

Now is the time to invest strategica­lly in Virginia’s talent by strengthen­ing the link between higher education and business. The result will be more and better career opportunit­ies for our young people, and more well-qualified employees to fuel business growth in Hampton Roads and across the commonweal­th.

To support these efforts or learn more about VBHEC’s work, please visit growth4va.com.

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