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Editorial: The (economic) contact tracers that rural Virginia needs

Editorial: The (economic) contact tracers that rural Virginia needs

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The Virginia Department of Health is in the process of hiring 1,000 “contact tracers,” people who get in touch with new coronavirus patients and try to figure out who they’ve been with so they can alert those people that they might have been exposed to the virus.

A vigorous contact-tracing program is said to be one of the ways that South Korea was able to squash its virus outbreak. The United States and South Korea recorded their first COVID-19 cases on the same day — January 20. We are still dealing with the pandemic — cases are rising, not falling — while South Korea has nearly (but not completely) eliminated the virus. That’s why the Korean baseball league has been playing games since May while our Miami Marlins could only get in a few games. South Korea is of course a much smaller country. But still, we should all be asking why the United States and South Korea responded so differently. Same virus, different responses, different outcomes. This isn’t about that, though. This is about something else. This is about why we need a different type of contact tracer for an entirely different problem.

Here’s a thought experiment: What if rural communities employed contact tracers to keep in contact with its high school graduates for five or six years after graduation?

Here’s the thinking behind that thought: Virtually every rural locality in Southside and Southwest Virginia is losing population. For those localities west of the New River, we can drop the “virtually.” The default for rural localities in today’s economy is that they lose population. The few that are gaining population are gaining because they’re experiencing exurban growth from a nearby city.

Localities can lose population in one of two ways – either because deaths outnumber births, or because more people move out than in. A lot of rural localities see both happen at the same time, a double demographic whammy. Their old people die and their young people move away. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it makes the point.

We can’t stop people from dying, but we might be able to do something about young people moving away.

Every year, high schools gather their seniors, say some fancy words, and then ceremoniously send them off into the world. Is that where their job should end, though?

Schools keep track of their dropouts — there are lots of reports to be filed. Some are inevitable — life is complicated — but if dropouts hit a certain level, then alarm bells go off and superintendents get hired with a mandate to reduce those numbers. What if we regarded the out-migration of young adults from rural communities (or even non-rural ones, for that matter) the same way? Should localities have some way to figure out how many high school graduates go off to college and then never return? Those are, in effect, demographic dropouts.

All across America, rural localities (and not always rural ones, either) are trying to figure out how to attract young, college-educated workers. This has little to do with sentimentality and everything to do with the economic bottom line. A recent study by Georgetown University found that 65% of the new jobs in the country will require some kind of education beyond high school — if not a four-year degree, then at least an associate’s degree from a community college. That’s not good news for rural localities, because their labor pools have a distinct deficit of workers with such degrees.

So that we can compare the same set of statistics, let’s just look at one slice of those new jobs. That 65% figure breaks down this way: Georgetown said that 35% would require at least a bachelor’s degree, 30% an associate’s degree. How do Southside and Southwest Virginia stack up? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, not a single locality in Southside comes close to having an adult workforce where 35% of the workers have a college degree. Lynchburg comes the closest at 33.6% but most localities are in the teens, with Greensville County coming in even lower, at 7.5%. From Roanoke to the west, only one locality can top that 35% figure — Montgomery County, home to Virginia Tech, weighs in at 46%. Roanoke County and Radford effectively match it — at 34.7% and 34.4%, respectively. But cross the New River and that figure falls — to 18% in Pulaski County and eventually down to 9% in Dickenson County. This isn’t simply a Southside and Southwest problem. North of Roanoke, the only locality to top that figure is the college town of Lexington, at 38.5%, and the college town of Harrisonburg effectively hits the mark at 34.9%.

One way for all these localities to increase the number of college-educated workers in its labor pool is to persuade more of its own sons and daughters to return after they’ve finished college. And that’s why those localities need contact tracers.

Right now, schools think their job is done once the graduates walk off the stage, high school diploma in hand. What if it weren’t? What if those school officials also got judged on how many of those students were still living in the community four or five or six years from now? (We add on some years because not everybody completes a college degree in four years). School officials probably wouldn’t like that – they likely feel they’ve had enough responsibilities laid on them already. Can’t dispute that. So maybe this is a function of each locality’s economic development office. What would it take — in resources, in privacy laws — for localities to contact those graduates once a year to see how they’re doing? This could be as simple as a holiday card that reminds them their hometown cares about them. It could be as elaborate as a formal reception every year that has doubles as a recruitment fair. How many high school graduates are fully aware of all the job opportunities in their community? Why would they be, if they’re not in the job market yet? So if four years from now that soon-to-be-college graduate’s view of their hometown hasn’t been updated, then maybe they don’t fully appreciate what opportunities are available.

In any case, all these localities have an incentive to recruit new residents — especially younger residents with in-demand job skills. It’s a lot easier to recruit those local graduates than some stranger on the other side of the country.

That’s why those localities should look at the health department’s contact tracers as a model to be adopted – and adapted. We can’t reduce the demographic dropout rate to zero — like we say, life is complicated — but here might be one way to reduce it below what it is.

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