For decades, as the coal industry automated, declined, and eventually collapsed in West Virginia, the state lost jobs and people. The population is now dropping faster than in any other state. It’s not hard to see why many college graduates look elsewhere for work.
A new fellowship called Impact West Virginia wants to bring them back and also wants to convince twenty-somethings from other states to try moving to West Virginia for a year. Part of the pitch: If you want to make a difference, this is a place where that can happen quickly.
“We know that young people can’t stay in a place without a job, and they won’t stay in a place they don’t like,” says Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, the nonprofit leading the fellowship. “This program is designed to really offer those jobs, but then also build on what we think is one of West Virginia’s greatest assets, which is the ability for young people to make an impact here,” she tells Co.Exist.
Fellows will spend four days each week working with a local company. A design firm in Charleston, West Virginia, founded by two young West Virginians, wants to hire a designer and developer. An environmental consulting firm in Morgantown wants a fellow to research environmental policy. A fintech firm in Huntington, West Virginia is hiring a developer and a data analyst.
On Fridays, the fellows will use their skills to help local nonprofits. The program is modeled on Challenge Detroit, a similar fellowship that has attracted hundreds of applicants each year since it launched in 2012.
The Impact WV fellowship pays $31,000 for a year and offers benefits (the median household income in Charleston is around $48,000). This year’s cohort–the first class–will have seven fellows. The program hopes to soon offer 35 positions a year.
“I think fellowships are an amazing tool, and I hope that we can serve as a model for how fellowships can be used for other organizations throughout the state,” Roper says. “One fellowship program isn’t going to change the talent attraction and retention trajectory for West Virginia–we need a lot more programs like this.”
For fellows, she says, working in a small town in West Virginia could be an opportunity to take on more responsibility and solve problems more creatively than they might be able to in large cities elsewhere. They could also potentially move at a faster pace, and see the results from their work take root more quickly.
“We think states like West Virginia, that are made up of small cities and small towns, offer unique opportunities for young people to make real impact that they can see and feel. That can happen faster than in large cities,” Roper says. “You can meet the people that you need to meet to make an idea happen more quickly.”
It’s something that Roper, originally from Virginia, says that she’s experienced in her own work. “Being here as a young person, I have personal experience with feeling that I have the freedom to think creatively and that I’ve been given the opportunity to step up and provide solutions,” she says. “That kind of environment is really invigorating.”
Applications for the Impact WV fellowship are due March 13.