WINCHESTER — Looking toward a post-coronavirus economy, Virginia and its communities should focus on infrastructure, find new ways to bring in jobs and put an emphasis on education, according to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
McAuliffe, a Democrat who served as Virginia’s governor from 2014-18, fielded questions and spoke to more than 100 regional business leaders during Tuesday’s 12th Annual Museum of the Shenandoah Valley Business Forum Luncheon, which was held virtually this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s very tough, but I happen to look at it as an opportunity,” McAuliffe said in his opening remarks. “I’d love to see Virginia lead America in building that post-COVID economy — I think we have all the assets and resources here in the Commonwealth. Every time we get hit back, it’s an opportunity and challenge for us to build a stronger, greater, more resilient economy.”
McAuliffe, who has filed to run for governor again in 2021, pointed to how he handled inheriting the state’s largest debt in 2014 as to how he thinks the current crisis can be overcome.
He said a focus on finding ways to create new pathways to jobs within 21st century technologies could help bring businesses and jobs to the area. Beyond that, focusing less on SAT scores and grade-point averages and more on skill sets could allow for a stronger education system.
Those aspects coupled with the state being an “open and welcoming” place could go a long way, McAuliffe said.
“Employers want employees who are going to come in, work hard and improve their bottom line,” he said.
McAuliffe fielded questions about economic development, transportation, education, remote work, and more.
Throughout answering questions, a focus seemed to be on advocating for more communication and better partnerships across the state.
Transportation improvements, for example, could be achieved through public-private partnerships, McAuliffe said.
“Cities, counties, towns are having their finances obliterated. It’s going to be tough for awhile,” he said. “We have to do a lot more (public-private partnerships), and we have to be smart about public-private partnerships.”
He also noted that every transportation project in Virginia goes through a process that includes metric scoring rather than one group or person saying they want a new road built and it being approved. The partnerships would help to alleviate state money being used to fund entirety of projects, he said.
Virginia needs to work together on education, too, he said, noting that he does worry about the long-term implications that could come with students learning from home.
“We can’t do it until it’s safe, but at some point we’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “And I do worry about rural communities who don’t have the capacity with broadband — it’s not fair, it’s not right.”
Part of that, he added, was that he believes the federal government should be on the hook for broadband initiatives, but that states and communities need to work together to communicate their needs.
He also said he feels Virginia has done good work with putting more emphasis on students obtaining certificates over college degrees and being able to find suitable jobs in the state’s workforce.
“We’ve got to do a lot more. We’ve got to rethink education and how we deliver it. They’re teaching for degrees and not spending time preparing them for the workforce,” he said. “You ought to be learning skill sets that match the jobs that exist in the commonwealth today.”
That workforce has changed, however, and those changes are more than just deciding on a desk job working with your hands.
More and more companies are working remotely, and that could lead to advanced opportunities, McAuliffe said.
“For some companies, this has worked. The long-term implications for us if people are doing more remote work is it effects the commercial real estate business, but it’s a new paradigm of how we have to move the workforce into the 21st century,” he said. “We’re going to have some empty office buildings, and we won’t see the development. But lucky for us, unlike other states, we’ve got some big assets that will continue to grow.”
McAuliffe’s question-and-answer session closed out the event, which was sponsored by First Bank of Virginia. The event also included virtual networking for participants in breakout rooms on the Zoom teleconferencing app.