Skip to content

KEEPING IT HERE Buying into local education smartens and strengthens a region

Updated: January 3, 2013 - 6:17 pm

Posted: January 3, 2013

By Nora Firestone

Will Harcum of Williamsburg had cut his teeth, then his muscles, on the family farm. He’d wrestled in high school, then at college in North Carolina for a while. But the full-time academic setting hadn’t fueled a fire between his physical and intellectual strengths and his interests.

In 2008 Harcum reconsidered an offer to attend The Apprentice School, where he could wrestle his rivals in the gymnasium and dominate a stimulating academic/employment schedule between the campus’s classrooms and Newport News Shipbuilding facilities. He’d re-engage – and therefore, reinvest – within his hometown communities while participating in a world-class specialty-training environment within one of the most vital manufacturing entities in the region, the nation and the world.

Hampton Roads is home to a diverse array of reputable, even renowned, higher-education institutions, serving the gamut—from students seeking specific vocational training to those in pursuit of advanced professional degrees. For example, the College of William and Mary ranked 40th in Forbes’ 2012 list of America’s Top Colleges and 26th in Business Insider Inc.’s list of 50 Best Law Schools in America. Students at Regent University, home of the Christian Broadcasting Network, have garnered hundreds of national and international film awards. The Apprentice School has served advancing industry needs since 1919, developing customized workforces for NNS, a global leader in high-tech naval design and manufacturing.

Large, small, public and private, Hampton Roads’ colleges aim to excel in preparing new and established generations for an ever-evolving workforce. Considering such commitment to development of human resources, the billions in financial assistance to college students nationwide annually, and the tendency for high percentages of dollars spent locally to recirculate in-market, one could argue that buying into local education smartens and strengthens a region. What if more of Hampton Roads’ students looked lo¬cally for a top-notch higher education?

Leaving home may sound attractive, said Ira Agricola, senior vice presi¬dent of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, but staying local helps sustain the hometown economy while sparing students increased out-of-state tuition and independent living costs as they partake of “opportuni¬ties right here in their own backyard.”

Hampton Roads’ colleges and uni¬versities contribute significantly to the local economy, via employment, student spending, housing, commu¬nity partnerships and industry advancements born of research and development. Authors of Old Dominion University’s 2012 State of the Region Report called Eastern Virginia Medical School “an increasingly important economic force” for the area, citing an annual economic impact of approximately $800 million. EVMS’s contributions have included the creation of more than 10,500 jobs and the growth of region-wide health and education initiatives, major research centers and international acclaim, specifically in the area of biomedical research.

ODU has “tremendous impact” as well, Agricola said. He then praised “all the (colleges and) universities” market-wide, adding that Tidewater Community College’s custom-designed programs make it a “premier workforce development institution.”

Retention of resulting talent also fosters economic growth and development and it requires intentional action. Despite the monetary value of an Apprentice School apprenticeship, graduates are not required to remain with NNS. Yet most do, Everett Jordan, the school’s director of education, said, citing a longstanding retention rate of better than 80 percent.

“That’s returning value to our company” in production, leadership, growth and more, he said. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that, frankly.”

How do they achieve it? Aside from the company’s outstanding continuing education and advancement opportunities, “we feel it’s up to the management team to create an atmosphere that’s exciting, (enriching) and rewarding for our graduates,” Jordan explained.

James Noel, director of York County’s Office of Economic Development, understands the importance of retaining graduate/workforce talent and said that the process can present a “chicken-and-the-egg” scenario “because you have to have the jobs to keep (it) here.”

Matthew James, president and CEO of the Peninsula Council for Workforce Development, explained that a “core challenge” within the cause is cultivating relevant skill sets as “technology is moving so fast that (employees) have to have a willingness and a capacity” to learn new skills. This is crucial for sustaining the kind of host environment sought by businesses today. Likewise, 21st-century job-seekers value companies that offer the ongoing training.

Hampton Roads schools, economic development agencies and business-support organizations have formed numerous collaborations and initiatives designed to marry workforce supply and demands, especially within such target industries as defense, engineering, software development, hospitality and tourism, and medical/ health care services.

Activities include development of “a better entrepreneurial ecosystem” and strategic financing, mentoring and marketing initiatives designed not only to secure existing businesses, talent and innovation, but also to attract companies from the outside, Noel explained. Emphasis on the lifestyle requisites of the new-generation workforce has increased. Those requisites include access to quality entertainment and recreation venues, affordable housing and transportation connectivity—all features of emerging mixed-use development design, he noted.

Now an Apprentice School graduate, Harcum pursues advanced education available on-site and via partnerships with local community colleges. He understands the value of his educational/ workforce experience and its viability worldwide. His decision to stay with NNS represents a bite of the fruit of mutual investment, as Hampton Roads continues to benefit from the skills, talents and community involvement he stayed to cultivate.

Agricola urges others to “get to know Hampton Roads, to really dive down and find out what’s here,” within a “high-quality, diverse university system that covers nearly every discipline that a student would want to pursue.”

Correspondent Nora Firestone is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach. She can be reached at