Virginia Tech Washington/Alexandria campus, National Capital Region, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, CAUS, students and professors in the classroom

Featuring Maggie Cowell, Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Virginia Tech, School of Public and International Affairs

Should local authorities target policies and programs to attract highly educated people? If so, what works?

Having an educated workforce is no panacea but it is an important foundation of a successful and flexible local economy. Sometimes, highly educated people are cultivated from within and sometimes these people emigrate from other parts of the region, country, or world in order to take advantage of employment opportunities or improved quality of life. Both approaches can work and can be seen in modern economic development strategies. Local authorities can cultivate a highly educated population by enacting strong workforce development programs and by partnering with local institutions of higher learning. At the same time, they can work to attract an educated population to their area by fostering a diverse economy, providing affordable housing, ensuring quality schools and a good quality of life.

Are highly educated cities better able to withstand economic shocks?

We don’t know the exact reasons why a city can or cannot withstand economic shocks, but we do know that having an educated population likely gives you a leg up on the competition. Highly educated people are often employed in highly skilled fields and their employers are generally ‘stickier’ than their counterparts that rely on lower-skilled employees. A sticky firm that employs highly skilled and educated employees may be less likely to move in the event of an economic disturbance because its employees are not as easily replaced and cannot be immediately replicated elsewhere.

In your opinion, what is the most important step we can take as a country to develop a more educated and skilled workforce?

In order to develop a more educated and skilled workforce we need to make sure that our educational offerings are affordable and relevant. Providing access to affordable higher education and workforce training programs is imperative because people cannot obtain training or education when they cannot afford it. We also need to make sure that we provide timely and ample opportunities for education and training in growing fields. Traditionally, we’ve struggled to match trained workers to current employer needs, especially in fast-growing industries. Moving forward, we need a more flexible and coordinated education and workforce development system – with more employer input and coordination – to make sure that workers are gaining the skills necessary to compete in a rapidly changing economy.