Paid college internships: A smart way Virginia can ease its youthful brain drain – Virginia Mercury

Paid college internships: A smart way Virginia can ease its youthful brain drain - Virginia Mercury

6:06 Commentary Commentary Paid college internships: A smart way Virginia can ease its youthful brain drain “Being able to have an internship that paid me for my time was definitely necessary,” said Breyana Stewart, who will graduate from VCU in May. (Bob Lewis/Virginia Mercury) Virginia needs to keep the Breyana Stewarts who are graduating from our colleges and universities from taking their brains, their energy and their winning personalities to other states. In May, Stewart will become the first in her family’s line of descent to earn a degree when she graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University. At age 23, she’s smart, optimistic, instantly likable, and looking for a job where she can soon put her new bachelor’s degree in communications to good use. She is a candidate for a permanent, fulltime, post-commencement job within Virginia. But she plans to search elsewhere, too. “I just applied for my first communications job,” she said over a latte in a Shockoe Bottom coffee shop this week. “I think it’s a shot in the dark because I haven’t graduated yet, but I want to get the ball rolling.” Too many newly minted graduates from Virginia’s institutions of higher learning are finding their futures outside the commonwealth, and it’s creating a demographic brain drain that could have economic consequences. That bothers Kirk Cox. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the 55th speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2018 to 2020. A Republican and a career educator who represented Colonial Heights for 32 years in the House, Cox now heads the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of leaders from the state’s business community and higher education institutions. In an interview earlier this month, Cox was blunt about challenges Virginia faces from other states that are magnets for early-career professionals and recent college grads. And he’s advancing a solution that makes sense: paid internships that build bridges to connect Virginia college students — particularly diverse students and those of limited economic backgrounds — with relevant experience in their fields of study, which can lead to jobs here after college. “They’ll tend to stay if they get a really good internship. If they don’t, they’re looking for other places to go,” Cox said. “The statistics show — and I think the kids will tell you —[that] if they get a meaningful internship, it’s much more likely that they get offered a job, [and] they’re much more likely to stay.” The “stay” part has become a problem in the past decade. During the latter 20th century though the first decade of this one, educated, upwardly mobile, young professionals flocked to Virginia for jobs in such numbers that it created uncontrolled suburban sprawl, especially in Northern Virginia. That trend is now in reverse as more of today’s smart, youthful and affluent cohort are leaving for opportunities in other states than are moving here. One way to track arrivals from other states vis-à-vis departures is Internal Revenue Service year-to-year personal income tax returns. The IRS aggregates data on the number of returns filed each year from within all 50 states and the District of Columbia and the number of individuals represented in them. Recent year-over-year comparisons do not inspire confidence for Virginia. Thirty years ago, almost 15,000 more people moved into Virginia than left, according to the IRS data for tax years 1994-95. Returns from tax years 2020-21, however, show that almost 9,300 more left Virginia than moved in. There were 243,217 departures compared to 233,924 come-heres. Twenty-seven states took more people from Virginia than migrated here from those states. Florida alone took in 10,584 more people from Virginians than came to Virginia from Florida, roughly the equivalent of Essex County. Hamilton Lombard, the chief demographer for the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, said the trend has hit Northern Virginia the hardest. Hampton Roads has also lost more than it gained, he said, but not as sharply. Smaller, less urbanized areas of Virginia, by contrast, have enjoyed net gains, especially since the pandemic popularized widespread use of working virtually from home, Cooper Center research shows. Another worrisome omen for colleges and businesses in need of their graduates is that enrollment still struggles with pandemic disruptions. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data from last September shows that undergrad enrollment ticked marginally upward for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but freshman enrollment dipped by 3.6%. That may be because teens see some recent college grads moving back home with their parents, working gigs as rideshare drivers, pizza deliverers and wait staff to repay college loans and seek work in their degree field. Short-term undergraduate certificate programs spiked by nearly 10% compared with a 3.6% jump in associate degrees and just under 1% for bachelor’s degrees, according to the NSCRC. The idea of paid internships has done the nearly impossible: united Democratic and Republican policymakers. It’s no mean feat to get Senate President Pro Tem Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and her frequent nemesis, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, literally reading from the same script as they did in this recent promotional video. At the behest of the VBHEC and its development campaign, Growth4Va, the program is poised to receive either $24 million (under the Senate version of the budget) or $29 million (in the House version) from the state through June of 2026. Some of that will help small businesses pay for interns. (Some disclosure is in order here. This initiative is advised by McGuireWoods Consulting, a public policy advisory services firm where I was a senior advisor for more than five years. I did not perform work for the VBHEC.) Let’s put aside the retail politics as well as the commercial and macroeconomic considerations. Paid internships for all Virginia students stands on its own egalitarian merit because of the way it can improve the lives of kids like Breyana Stewart. She knew she wanted to work in communications since her elementary school days in Hampton Roads, when she was an anchor of the school’s closed-circuit morning newscast. “My mom always advocated for me to go to college,” Stewart said. “She was always saying how important it is to get a degree. I knew that when I started college that I would have to support myself … so I’ve always worked since I’ve gone to college.” Now in her final semester, she works two jobs — one as a receptionist at a clinic and another as a promotions assistant at Radio One’s Richmond stations. But the big differentiator for her career path is the three months she spent last summer as an intern at the Hodges Partnership, a marketing, PR and media relations shop in Richmond. “Being able to have an internship that paid me for my time was definitely necessary,” she said. Because of that, she was able to cover her rent in Richmond during that time. Might she wind up where she interned? Who knows. Stewart said she loved her time at Hodges and stayed in touch with the friends and colleagues she made there. Regardless, just listing experience with such an esteemed company on her résumé gives her an edge wherever her search leads her. It’s time for Virginia to make paid internships accessible to any kid willing to learn and put in the work the way she did and — with a little luck — keep more of our most promising prospects home. Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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