Workers needed, salaries lag

Published 6:55 pm Monday, January 20, 2020

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Diana McFarland


All roads appear to lead to a skilled workforce when it comes to attracting business and industry to Isle of Wight County — as well as the entire Hampton Roads region.

That was the main take-away Thursday as local and regional leaders met to update or amend the Isle of Wight County Economic Development Strategic Plan, which dates back to 2013.

How to make that happen is the stumbling block, as jobs and wages here, and throughout Hampton Roads, lag behind other large metro areas and affordable housing is hard to find.

“We have employees who cannot live in Isle of Wight County,” said Windsor Town Manager Michael Stallings.

Other trouble spots are a lack of public transportation, few amenities and entertainment options, lack of full high-speed internet coverage and the main roadways could use some improvement as traffic is ever increasing, according to input from those who attended the meeting.

The meeting included Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors members, county staff, members of the Isle of Wight Economic Development Authority, officials and staff from the towns of Smithfield and Windsor, as well as staff from the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance and the Hampton Roads Workforce Council.

And while young folks are not returning home after college, older retirees are moving to the area, causing Isle of Wight County’s demographic to turn gray.

If the county doesn’t start attracting and retaining younger residents, “We’re going to be in a world of hurt in a few years,” said Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson.

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree said getting apartments built in Isle of Wight can be a struggle.

“Many times a community won’t embrace an apartment complex next door,” he said.

Meanwhile, it was pointed out that while there are many apartments in Eagle Harbor, they are too expensive for those with an entry-level job, as rents run more than $1,000 a month.

Some notable improvements since 2013 with regards to workforce training is the new Career and Technical Education program with the Isle of Wight County schools. With that program, a high school student can earn a welding certification and go directly to a job at one of the region’s shipyards.

Isle of Wight County also last year joined the Eastern Virginia Regional Industrial Facility Authority, which also includes Gloucester, Hampton, James City County, Newport News, York County, Williamsburg and Poquoson.

By being part of what is called a “RIFA,” Isle of Wight would cooperate in developing facilities in the region and perhaps having ownership.

In 2013, the industries that were thriving in Isle of Wight were agriculture, retail, transportation and warehousing and finance and insurance.

The warehousing portion was the driver behind establishing the intermodal park, which was to coincide with the expansion of the Port of Virginia. The Port has expanded, but the warehousing piece hasn’t materialized. Recently, Isle of Wight officials learned that a good portion of the remaining county-owned land in the intermodal park is now considered wetlands, changing the equation on what can go there in the future.

The 2013 plan suggested the following areas being targeted — finance and insurance, professional and technical services, health care and social accommodation and food service.

The discussion Thursday focused on clusters, such as bringing suppliers to Isle of Wight that support existing businesses and industries in the county and region.

Broad sectors, which would support industries that are already successful in Isle of Wight include food and paper manufacturing, distribution and logistics, professional, scientific and technical services, construction and management of companies and enterprises.

Other ideas included encouraging businesses that are expanding on the Peninsula, such as Newport News Shipbuilding, to open satellite offices in Isle of Wight, as many workers live here and the James River Bridge is a continuous choke-point.

The Franklin Regional Airport is another asset that can be better utilized, said Isle of Wight County Director of Economic Development Chris Morello.

One persistent myth about Isle of Wight County is that agriculture is a large employer, but it makes up 1.8 percent of the county’s total workforce, according to Isle of Wight County Administrator Randy Keaton.

“Four people can farm 4,000 acres,” said Keaton about impact of farming technology.


At a glance

  • Virginia has 18 regions, with Hampton Roads having 17 percent of the total state workforce. Northern Virginia has the largest share at 33 percent and Richmond is third, with 13 percent.
  • Manufacturing was the largest industry to explore Isle of Wight as a prospect at 22 percent, followed by transportation and warehousing at 18 percent and agriculture at 15 percent.
  • Civilian employment in Isle of Wight is on par with Hampton Roads, however, the region lags behind the state and nation.
  • In Isle of Wight, it is estimated that 13,421 residents who live here and work somewhere else in the region, while 3,296 live and work in the county and 7,544 work in Isle of Wight but live elsewhere.

Of those workers who live in Isle of Wight, 19.7 percent also work here, 19.9 work in Newport News and 9 percent in Suffolk.

Information courtesy of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance.


DIANA MCFARLAND is editor of The Smithfield Times. Contact her at