State commerce chief speaks at Shenandoah U.

Maurice Jones.

WINCHESTER — The Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade said the commonwealth is strong economically, but it will need to diversify in order to meet future demands.

Speaking to a crowd of 75 students, faculty and members of the public in the Stimpson Auditorium at Shenandoah University, Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones gave an overview of the state’s economy as a part of the Harry F. Byrd School of Business’s Entrepreneurship Week lecture series.

Jones said Virginia is rife with resources for economic growth, citing the state’s 6 percent corporate tax, its six interstates and the Port of Virginia, which is the deepest port on the East Coast.

“This really is a place with an incredible array of assets and is well positioned to continue to grow and allow our folks to continue having a great quality of life,” Jones said. “We have great infrastructure in place and a low cost of doing business.”

According to Jones, Virginia has the 11th largest higher education system in the United States, with a community college within 30 miles of each Virginia resident. Jones said because of the scope of higher education in Virginia, one in 10 employees in the private sector are employed in information technology firms.

“That’s the highest concentration of technology employees in the country,” Jones said. “You don’t need to go to the Silicon Valley to get IT experience. You can do it right here in Virginia.”

However, Virginia’s economy is not without its risks, Jones said. According to Jones, 13 of the top 20 employers in the commonwealth are public sector jobs, including the Department of Defense, the U.S. Postal Service and Fairfax County Public Schools.

“I use this analogy; If you’re a Denver Broncos fan and Peyton Manning has a good day, your team wins, if he has a bad day, they lose,” Jones said. “The public sector is our Peyton Manning. The Department of Defense has more employees than our next top three employers combined.”

Jones continued, “If the public sector is your greatest growth engine, when the public sector is growing, life is pretty good. But now it has hit one of its most challenging times and the Defense Department is certainly cutting its budget, which hurts Virginia.”

According to Jones, Virginia has a 5.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the southeast, however it is only 48th in the nation for economic growth. Jones said the reliance on the federal government has made current growth projections for the state’s economy lower than the national average for the first time in the 21st century.

Another issue Jones brought up is the increase in lower wage jobs in the commonwealth.

“The average wage in the Defense Department is north of $85,000 … average wage at Wal-Mart is south of $25,000,” Jones said. “We are growing low wage jobs right now at four times the rate of high wage jobs.”

The remedy, Jones said, is for Virginia to diversify its economy through developing more infrastructure, focusing on sectors such as advanced manufacturing and tourism, more job training and keeping a low tax, low regulation business environment.

In regards to the Northern Shenandoah Valley, Jones said agriculture and industry should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but as working in conjunction with one another.

“We need to fuse the technology with the agriculture to help develop bigger and better products,” Jones said. “In this area, tourism is another good sector to look at, as well as entrepreneurial opportunities with this location and this beauty.”

However, Jones was quick to add the Northern Shenandoah Valley does have its challenges in attracting more development.

“You got some tough competition in this area,” Jones said. “When people think of Northern Virginia, they think of the Washington, D.C., area. The challenge for this area is trying to cut through the noise of the D.C. area and make the story of the Northern Shenandoah stick out from that noise.”

At the end of the lecture, Miles Davis, dean of the business school, presented an award for Jones’ contributions to business and politics in the state of Virginia.

“Normally we give this award to participants of our Distinguished Lecture series,” Davis said. “But I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that Mr. Jones would have been a wonderful addition to that lecture series.”

Steven Sokol, a junior business administration student at the university and a Stephens City resident, said he was impressed by Jones’ lecture.

“I thought it was really informative and gave us perspective to things we don’t learn inside the classroom,” Sokol said. “For example, we students don’t see too much of agriculture when we’re here in Winchester city, but him telling us about it made me realize just how important it is to the Northern Shenandoah Valley.”

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com