From left, Chris Kyle, Shentel industry affairs and regulatory vice president, Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Debbie Melvin, assistant vice president of talent solutions at Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and Joyce Krech, of the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center, participate in a local economic development panel at the Atlantic Union Bank Center on the James Madison University campus Tuesday.

A new group being launched aims to bring businesses together to jointly find solutions to some of the problems employers are facing in today’s business climate.

The name of the group will be the Shenandoah Valley Collective Action Pact, according to Nick Swartz, associate dean at the James Madison University School of Professional and Continuing Education.

“The purpose of the Shenandoah Valley Collective Action Pact is to galvanize the economic potential of the region through commitment, collaboration, solutions and promotion,” according to a document provided at a regional economic recovery series gathering at JMU’s new Atlantic Union Bank Center on Tuesday. Over 100 business owners, city and county officials, economic experts, and university and nonprofit leaders attended the event.

Swartz said the group, which was announced at the event, could provide a model for how businesses and other groups, such as JMU, can come together to address some of the largest barriers to local economic growth.

“In order to help our region reach its economic potential, those who have signed the pact agree to first commit to working across sectors and collaboratively to one of priority areas of action,” he said. “In this document, we can focus on what we decide, if that’s child care and transportation and training, and a year from now, we reconvene and identify three additional issues.”

At the end of the event, Swartz had employers list some of the issues they were facing in hiring, and by far and away the largest response was child care followed distantly by transportation and training and fear of sickness.

Laura Toni-Holsinger, executive director of the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, said the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Weyers Cave is a valuable piece of economic development that is supported by businesses and business groups, and child care should be approached similarly.

“It’s an investment, not a charity,” Toni-Holsinger said. “And as long as it continues to be a charity, we’ll find ourselves in this situation.”

Renee Haltom, vice president and regional executive for the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, said during the event that she expects more people to come into the job market during the late summer and early fall as school starts back up in person.

Debbie Melvin, assistant vice president of talent solutions for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, said she is seeing some “interesting trends” come out of companies’ difficulty in finding labor.

“We are seeing a greater interest in diversity,” she said. “So, folks are willing to look into working with different segments of the population that they haven’t really tried very hard to attract to their staff” previously.

Before the pandemic, under the Trump administration, unemployment reached some of its lowest recorded levels. Wages were rising and in 2019, the unemployment rate for Americans with physical, mental or emotional disabilities also reached a historically low level as employers sought workers everywhere they could find them.

Melvin said the competition for workers hasn’t just raised wages — it’s forced employers to offer benefits packages and other benefits to workers that weren’t offered before.

“I think employers are realizing that in order to attract people to work, they have to show new hires and existing employees what a career pathway is — how they can grow and develop in their workforce,” Melvin said.

However, companies’ difficulty in finding workers also limits their ability to expand and create new jobs.

Chris Kyle, vice president of industry and regulatory affairs for Shentel, said he sees both long- and short-term solutions to the problems faced by employers today and before the pandemic.

Part of these solutions includes working with schools to identify students who might find careers that don’t require a four-year college degree fulfilling and matching them with employers who can offer them high pay and training.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

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