It’s time for a “fundamental reset” for the way Virginia’s colleges and universities think about economic development, John O. “Dubby” Wynne told the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board yesterday. Wynne, former CEO of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications, is a driving force behind the Virginia Go initiative.
“For the first time in decades, Virginia’s economy is not doing very well,” said Wynne. The problem runs deeper than federal budget sequestration’s hit to military spending or managerial issues at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Virginia needs to address major structural problems, he said.
One of those problems is the mismatch between jobs and skills in the state. Wynne quoted a figure widely used by Governor Terry McAuliffe, that 150,000 jobs in the IT sector alone are going unfilled; tens of thousands of those are in the cyber-security field. With skills shortages of that magnitude, it won’t be easy recruiting outside corporate investment, Virginia’s traditional economic development strength.
“If outside people see that you can’t take care of your existing businesses,” said Wynne, “the chances of them coming here are small.”
Since retiring from Landmark, Wynne has immersed himself in state and regional economic-development efforts. He serves as vice chairman on the state-appointed Council on Virginia’s Future and is a member of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. He worked with Dominion CEO Tom Farrell to create the Go Virginia initiative, which has received state dollars this year to spur regional and public-private collaboration to spark economic growth.
Virginia needs to produce people who can participate in the knowledge economy, and the state’s higher ed system is critical to making that happen, Wynne said. It’s an open question, though, how well the state’s colleges and universities can make economic development part of their mission. There are so many stakeholders with a voice, he said, that “it’s very hard to get movement with any kind of market speed.” Higher ed needs “to get a serious discussion going to say that it’s OK to be involved in economic development.”
Aside from workforce development, Wynne cited two strategies for Virginia higher ed to pursue. One is to do a better job of getting intellectual property out of the labs and into the market. Other states have found ways to do this; so should Virginia. He would like to see more incubators and accelerators in university communities.
The other strategy is to identify industry clusters where Virginia has particular strengths and to help create a workforce with the skills those clusters need. Collaboration is the key. As an example, he cited a 40-firm cyber-security cluster in Hampton Roads. Local educational institutions need to develop “a new model” — possibly including more “self-paced” courses — in which local industry is much more involved. Already, three cities in the region are collaborating with a regional community foundation to raise money to build the cluster. Said Wynne: “Companies will move to places helping them grow.”
“If you put all your money in the present and none in the future,” he concluded, “you won’t have a future.”