West Virginia’s young people problem is well documented: In 2016, the state was the only one to report a drop in birth rates and an increase in outward migration–both are attributable to young people leaving the state, and staying away.
Natalie Roper is one of the few who’s stayed, and she heads up a nonprofit, Generation West Virginia, whose aim is to support opportunities for young people to build up their own careers and the economy in the state overall–and importantly, to stay (the organization sells shirts that say “Here for the Long Haul Y’All“). Generation WV offers a fellowship program that places twentysomethings at local companies; last year saw fellows go to a design firm in Charleston, an environmental consulting firm in Morgantown, and Core10, a fintech firm in Huntington.
Placing fellows in various jobs across the state led to Generation WV’s latest initiative, NewForce: an intensive training and job-placement program to connect young West Virginians with careers in tech. “In the past year, almost 50% of the positions companies wanted fellows for were in software development,” Roper says. “There’s this real need for something specific to technology.”
One Roper identified this need, though, she realized there was no real pipeline to fill it. The state, once dominated by the coal industry, has struggled economically, and while a handful of companies, like Core10, have taken root in the state, they still struggle to attract talent because so many young people leave, and as a result, they struggle to grow. “Core10, which was already working with us on the fellowship program, really served as our proof of concept,” Roper says. “They realized if they had a bigger tech talent pipeline, they could really grow here in West Virginia.”
So Roper decided to create that pipeline. She’d already identified a model to follow: In Tennessee, the Nashville Software School has produced over 700 graduates through its intensive boot-camp model, which is what Roper wanted to replicate. NSS helped her adapt the concept and curriculum for Generation WV. Jobcase, an employment platform that already reaches around 500,000 West Virginians, is partnering with Generation WV to direct potential applicants to the opportunity. There’s no prior experience in tech or software development required, which for Roper and Christopher Scranton, Jobcase’s director of nonprofit and government partnerships, was crucial. “There are a lot of people in the state who feel like they can’t find a job, and chances are, there is an opportunity, but they just can’t access it,” Scranton says. NewForce aims to completely eradicate the barrier to entry for a career in tech, especially as so much of the talent pool may be people who previously worked as miners, and now find themselves having to start over in their careers.
Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington signed on as the initiative’s educational partner; all of the bootcamp courses will be held there. NewForce will train around 15-25 students, tuition-free, in software development and coding. All of NewForce’s partner organizations will share the cost of the program so it doesn’t fall on the students. “They’ll be in class from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday–it’s like a job,” Roper says. And for their employment partners, NewForce is providing a service in the form of that pipeline of talent they need to grow in the state. At the end of the training course, which kicks off in January after Generation WV and JobCase review applicants, the students will participate in a job interview day with the program’s employment partners from around the state.
The relationship with the employment partners, Roper says, has been critical to the development of NewForce. “We didn’t just want to make a training program for jobs in software development; we wanted to understand what type of jobs our partners need filled, and tailor the curriculum to match,” she says. The aim is for every graduate of NewForce to land a job, but if that doesn’t happen after the interview day in July, the Jobcase and Generation WV have a wide enough network, Roper says, that they will be able to help facilitate other opportunities.
Roper and Scranton are optimistic that they’ll be able to train and place around 50 people in the first year, and perhaps eventually scale the number of people accepted into the program as educational and employment partners continue to sign on. To them, the initiative could address the double bind facing West Virginia right now: Lack of job opportunities, and lack of a pipeline to incentivize employers to create those opportunities. And maybe, fixing both will encourage more people to stay.