Charleston West Virginia Economic Development

Discussions on Economic and Community Development in West Virginia and the Charleston MSA as well as issues of the Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Generation West Virginia
New Groups Bring Fresh Ideas, Enthusiasm to Address Old Problems in State
A young professional looking across West Virginia's landscape might not perceive much company, but a group of like-minded young adults has banded together to hone in on the reasons why so many of their peers leave the state and why they have stayed.

Generation West Virginia, the young professionals' movement, began as a handful of separate regional organizations.

"It all begins and ends with the concern of the brain drain in West Virginia and losing young talent," said Paul Daugherty, an architect of one of the first organizations, Young Emerging Leaders of the Mid-Ohio Valley in Parkersburg, where he still is co-chairman, and now is a member of Generation Morgantown.

"In these six regions of West Virginia, the different groups of young leaders were interested in how do we retain, attract and advance young talent within the state ... so as each group got started, we each, through our own professional networks, began connecting the dots."

And the vanguard of the young professionals' movement looks at West Virginia as a place to build up, not tear down. They even see the moniker "young professionals" in the broadest sense, not bound by stereotypes of lawyers and accountants. They welcome those who have careers in the arts, health care, education, entertainment and hospitality.

Getting Started
Daugherty said he and Mindi Line in Parkersburg a few years ago recognized a large generational gap among the residents there. They began thinking of how to build opportunities for people starting out in their careers to become connected to the community to build their careers. He said he and Line researched young professionals' groups in other parts of the country, and he thought the Mid-Ohio Valley needed something similar.

At nearly the same time in Huntington, unaware of Daugherty in Parkersburg, Chris Slaughter began rallying young professionals in the area to create resources for one another as the Young Professionals' Committee of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce. Joe Randolph, the committee's current chairman, said the organization has built a brand in the three years since its inception and has about 162 members.

"This is a way to stimulate relationships and network," Randolph said. "This is just one more way of trying to keep folks here."

Shortly after the first two groups started, Ashley Hardesty in Morgantown thought there had to be more to the city than students and established professionals.

"We all kind of started in different ways at the same time without knowing about the other ones," Hardesty said. "I kind of embarked on this grassroots effort to start something in Morgantown. I sent an e-mail to all of my friends and told them to send it to their friends."

Generation Charleston then began as part of the Charleston Area Alliance, with Erica Mani spearheading the effort. Hardesty told Mani at a statewide Bowles, Rice, McDavid Graff and Love retreat that she'd been at it for a few months, so she'd be happy to help. Then the Bowles Rice connection helped Kristin West get started in Martinsburg, too.

"We were urged by some of the other state groups that this would be something great for Martinsburg," West said. "We went to the first statewide organizational retreat back in February, and at that point we were kind of going just to observe. After we left, we were so inspired, we got so many great ideas, we got up and running."

As the founding members of the regional groups began to discover one another, they decided they should get together. In February 2007, they asked Bowles Rice attorney Tom Heywood to join them as a facilitator when they got together to identify common concerns and determine similar interests. They met again in August to hone in on statewide issues and pound the nails into the statewide concept of Generation West Virginia. The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation helped sponsor both meetings.

And most recently, OVConnect began in Wheeling after a push from Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce President Terry Sterling.

"Many years ago, when I moved back to Wheeling in the early 1980s, there was a young professionals' organization," Sterling said. "One of the projects our chamber is working on, in conjunction with our regional economic partnership, is an initiative to encourage recent graduates and individuals about to graduate from our local colleges to consider staying or moving back.
"That was really the reason I wanted to get this started again, and I originally approached members of our Leadership Wheeling alumni group many months ago."

Organizational Roots
The Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, once was the premier young professionals' organization, but Generation West Virginia -- with its social, service and policy participation -- is a little different.

"Both the Junior Women's Club and Jaycees were feeders to the Kiwanis, Rotary and Chamber of Commerce," said Pete Torrico of BJW Printing, and former Beckley Jaycee. "There are still Jaycee chapters nationwide, but they don't have nearly the membership numbers of the past. It has declined, along with Junior Women's Clubs, and, right now, we need that.

"We don't have a young crop of energetic young people coming along to fill the slots in civic organizations."

Torrico said he thought all civic organizations were losing members and in need of new blood. He said the Jaycees were a social group with fraternal activities that performed a lot of community service. He pointed to the hospital in Hinton as an example of how Jaycees "rolled up their sleeves and got things done."

"We needed a rescue squad in Beckley, so the Jaycees went out and raised enough money to buy a rescue squad," he said. "But today, civic organizations would never think about doing anything, because if the city needed a rescue squad, they'd go buy it because government has replaced a lot of things civic groups used to do.

"We pay taxes, so we expect all these services to be free; we don't expect people in the communities to roll up their sleeves because it's easier to apply for a grant than to roll up your sleeves or sell raffle tickets or whatever."

Sterling said he thought a networking group of the area's young professionals would be very beneficial, and OVConnect's rapid growth -- from eight people at the initial meeting a few months ago to about 200 people on the current mailing list -- demonstrates the need for such an organization that pools together a network the area had been trying to tap into for some time.

"I'm very proud of them," he said. "They've really embraced this concept. Our interest here at the Chamber was to get it started and hand it off. I think they can serve as a valuable resource here in the Ohio Valley."

'Retain, Attract & Advance Young Talent'
Each group has its own focus. Wheeling and Martinsburg want to build their brands. Charleston and Morgantown want to gain more structure. But the overarching mission for Generation West Virginia includes outreach to inspire other regional groups, spur economic development, influence legislative and policy issues, provide statewide marketing and establish a young leadership conference.

The group wants to create best practices to help other regional groups that may begin. When it comes to economic development, Generation West Virginia wants to share its viewpoints and concerns for things such as quality of life. Generation West Virginia doesn't want to back any political candidates but rather focus on legislative and policy issues important to the young professional, which ties into statewide marketing for West Virginia as a destination for young leaders and families.

And the groups already recognize they have a responsibility to not only learn from established leaders and step up themselves but also hand it down to even later generations.

"One thing we want to share is that in West Virginia you can build a career as well as be successful at a young age, and part of our role is going to be to tell other people," Daugherty said. "We know that it's going to take a number of years to achieve our goal, but, in essence, part of it is building partnerships and the resources and really pulling people together."

Daugherty said according to West Virginia's 2000 census, more than 650,000 West Virginians fall into the 18-44 bracket, and while most of the groups focus on the 21-45 age bracket, that many people connected to their local communities would have a huge effect.

This group recognizes that it's not about each region on its own. Members have said that what advances one area in turn advances the entire state, and that's their push.

"Most of the existing leaders, whether it's business, civic or education, they're looking at where will the next generation of leadership come from," he said. "We don't want to have this issue of the brain drain going on in our 50s and 60s when we're in the board rooms making other decisions."

Huntington's current chairman, Joe Randolph, said he once heard from West Virginia Chancellor of Higher Education Brian Noland that among 100 West Virginia high school students, roughly 60 would graduate and 30 would go to college. Of the 30 in college, only three will stay in the state. Randolph said if that's true, the outreach has to start even earlier.

The groups' social aspect of simply finding like-minded individuals plays a big part in quality of life.
Justin Seibert of OVConnect said when he recently moved back to his native Wheeling to start his online marketing business, his wife wanted ways to meet people and become a part of the community. They established a deadline to move if they weren't happy within a few years.

Generation Charleston Chairman Matt Kingery moved to the capital city from Huntington. After seeing the successful YPC in Huntington, he said he first looked for a similar movement in Charleston before he moved.

"I said I don't want to be the guy who just works all the time; I do want to be connected," Kingery said. "I said if there's something like this group, I definitely want to get keyed into it.

"We don't want to be just a social organization, but we can use that as a tool to capture that energy."

Hardesty said Generation Morgantown has a goal to bridge the gap that exists between students and established professionals, and social events are what put 600 people on its mailing list.

Dave Stinson, Generation Morgantown's marketing director, said bringing people into the state and keeping them here is as simple and as complex as networking.

"I went golfing about a month ago ... and we had a couple of caddies who had moved back here to be closer to family," Stinson said. "I got one gentleman an interview ... and the other gentleman will be doing acting in my commercial productions, so it spiderwebs, and that's a big part of what we do.

"Ultimately, it's about securing our financial success and careers in this town, and that's the bottom line, but it goes deeper than that."

Stinson said Generation Morgantown, as a chamber of commerce entity, policy is part of the mission.

"If we can start effecting policy that will affect our generation, just think about what that can do for a state where we lose a lot of our young, bright professionals," he said. "I think that ball's already rolling, but the jobs are here; they just don't know how to find them sometimes."

In Martinsburg, West said she tentatively started the group with four other attorneys, but about 40 people attended their first social event -- including an employee of the bank across the street from her office.

"I'd been working here for two years and had never seen him before," West said. "We might have plenty of young people who come to the Panhandle, and they live in our communities, but they might travel outside to work, and on the weekends travel again, so we kind of thought one of the things we really need to focus on is giving people a sense of community and a reason to become a part of their community."

Daugherty said as the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire, many regions of the country will deal with a major vacuum in talent across every professional field.

"On a national spectrum, it's predicted that by 2008 there will be a shortage of 10 million workers across all employment categories nationwide," he said. "West Virginia already deals with the challenge of retaining talent, and it's going to be an increasing concern."

Outside Opinions
Each regional organization is connected to its local chamber of commerce, and it would be easy for the "old guard" to be threatened by these "young bucks." But the reception has been warm as the groups take their place under the umbrella of Generation West Virginia and their affiliations with chambers of commerce.

"I am active with a lot of groups that are just ecstatic with this," Heywood said. "One of the things I see in a lot of these business and trade organizations I participate in ... is a sense that people are always going, and it's always the same people sitting around the table.

"There's plenty of work to go around, and the existing organizations I think uniformly, the ones that I'm involved in, have been really just delighted with the energy and the focus and the enthusiasm."
Heywood said when what is now Generation West Virginia first contacted him to guide them through their first two meetings, he was struck by their thoughtfulness and enthusiasm along with the accomplishments already under their belts.

"By the time they had approached me, many of the young leaders groups had very active groups," he said. "As I listened to them articulate their vision for West Virginia, their process, how they would go about it, they were saying the exact same things the older leaders I had worked with for many years were saying, and it was like a breath of fresh air.

"When I had the first facilitation opportunity in February, and I was able to meet the larger group and see them in action ... the future of the state is secure. These young people are very much about action; they are out there doing it and making all the right moves."


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