Amazon’s HQ2 arrival touches old Virginia coal mining country

UVA-Wise in southwest Virginia, built atop a reclaimed coal mine, is part of Virginia's plan to expand the number of grads in computer science and related fields partly to accommodate Amazon's second headquarters in Arlington. (Hamblen)

Amazon’s long-term “HQ2” second headquarters plan to create 25,000 high tech jobs in Arlington, Virginia, has sparked a renewed zest in the training of computer and electrical engineers in areas of the state where tobacco and coal mining were once king.

The state has set a goal of doubling the number of graduates in computer science and related fields in the next two decades. Several universities are expected to finalize funding for their growth plans in November.

It was nearly a year ago that Amazon said it would bring 25,000 highly skilled jobs to Virginia for its HQ2 over a dozen years, and the state is priming to produce 25,000 to 35,000 more graduates at schools such as Virginia Tech and University of Virginia, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP).

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Not all those graduates will get jobs at Amazon, but the expected bonanza has caught the interest of tech companies five hours’ drive away in southwest Virginia that want to partner with Amazon in various ways. Those smaller partners, in turn, could end up hiring recent engineering graduates or mid-career professionals from Virginia and other states.

“I’m very excited Amazon is coming to Northern Virginia,” said Kirk Lortz, a director of consulting for CGI, one of the largest IT consultancies in the world. He works at a branch office in Lebanon, Virginia, alongside 365 other professionals. “I see this as a win-win. I’d like to work with them. Twenty-five thousand is a lot of jobs.”

CGI provides a variety of IT support services and software to commercial and government clients and could conceivably work with Amazon as a customer. Lebanon is a half day’s drive from Washington, D.C., and has been able to support its remote operations with IT talent scooped up largely from local colleges.

Lebanon and large pockets of southwestern Virginia supported coal mining and agriculture for generations. “But the coal industry played out,” Lortz said. CGI has found the graduates from the local colleges come from families accustomed to spending long hours at taxing farming and mining jobs. As a result, the work ethic is high and worker retention ranks far above average for tech companies.

With the low cost of living in much of the area, workers who have grown up in the area and attended nearby colleges can find long-term employment near home. “If you want to stay here, you don’t have to leave,” said Craig Earls, a manager of consulting services at CGI.

Good broadband connections in the southwest region of the state help companies like CGI. Verizon seems to have the best wireless connectivity in many of the mountainous areas, according to an informal survey of reporters on a recent state-sponsored economic development tour through the area.

At 1901 Group, another IT managed service provider in Blacksburg, Virginia, the attitude toward Amazon’s arrival in Northern Virginia is hopeful, said Brian Lubin, senior vice president of service management. The company has 100 of its personnel certified to work with AWS and has developed a reputation for helping government agencies and other customers move legacy data centers to the cloud.

In and near Blacksburg, 1901 Group depends heavily on recruiting graduates of Virginia Tech and Radford University, as well as New River Community College. In all, there are 45,000 college students in the area that could provide a rich supply of qualified potential workers.

The area “is a good source of IT workers,” and 1901 Group and other companies offer students “a good place to start a career,” Lubin said. The company has its headquarters in Northern Virginia in Reston where it plans to add 225 new jobs by 2021 in addition to 580 new jobs in Blacksburg by then, according to VEDP.

“Our goal of creating high-quality IT jobs clustered in rural areas is the best way to improve quality and performance for the federal government, especially as the pace of cloud adoption increases,” said 1901 Group CEO and founder Sonu Singh in a VEDP report from early 2019. “Our revenue and headcount growth are proof that this is the next big trend in rural IT jobs.”

At Radford University in nearby Radford, Virginia, Amazon’s arrival is seen as a great opportunity for students, many who will study cloud computing, said Jeff Pittges, director of the applied research center at Radford.

About 11% of IT graduates at Radford stay in the area, but about 22% say they would like to stay. About 40% of the 9,000 students at the school come from Northern Virginia and 50% return to that area after school.

Pittges said employers are impressed with students from the area, especially graduates who grew up on farms and are the first in their families to get a college degree. “Some will work a full day before coming to school,” he said. “If something breaks on the farm you fix it. That translates well to debugging software.”

Even at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise in the far southwest corner of the state, the student body is expected to grow to 2,600 in five years, up from 2,100 today, partly to accommodate the need for students in software engineering, computer science and systems management, according to Chancellor Donna Henry. One-third of the students serve as research interns during their tenure at the school.

A growing area of student interest is in courses about cybersecurity, including penetration testing and digital forensics, skills needed in a variety of tech jobs. “We’re expanding course offerings in cyber,” said Daniel Orr, an instructor in computer science.

UVA-Wise has a liberal arts focus, but offers a broad education to help graduates who want to stay in the area and potentially find work at four nearby data centers. The data centers chose the region partly because of the low amount of seismic activity and available broadband, but also to tap into its broadly educated work force.

“We will remain a liberal arts college and are sticking by the liberal arts,” said Shannon Blevins, associate vice-chancellor. “Employers still need students to be broadly educated, and of course that includes skills in writing and speaking.”

Blevins took reporters on a tour of the picturesque UVA-Wise campus with several new buildings nestled into the side of a mountain. Much of the 400-acre campus was built atop a reclaimed coal mine. “We don’t look anything like Northern Virginia,” she said. “Rural regions are not for everybody, but for some, it’s the perfect place.”

Another tech jobs windfall for Virginia alongside Amazon’s anticipated impact will come from semiconductor maker Micron, which plans to invest $3 billion to expand memory production at a semi manufacturing facility in Manassas, Virginia, on the western edge of the Data Center Alley near Interstate 66.

Micron first came to the Manassas area in 2001 when the area was far more rural. Now Manassas is one of a number of once-small towns that have added jobs and commercial spaces stretching along I-66 almost to West Virginia. The company already employs about 1,300 workers in the area and the memory expansion will create 1,100 new jobs by 2030, according to VEDP. Micron also plans an R&D center there.

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