Local leaders play key role at National Association of Counties symposium in Greenbrier County

By Matthew Young, RealWV

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The Rural Action Caucus (RAC) Symposium was held this week at the Greenbrier Resort, bringing both state and national leaders of business and politics to White Sulphur Springs.

Under the umbrella of the National Association of Counties (NACo), RAC works to “identify rural challenges and elevate solutions through peer-to-peer information exchanges and national policy discussions.” First established in 1997, RAC has “represented the nearly 70% of America’s counties that are rural, addressing critical federal, state, and local issues impacting these unique communities.”

Featured speakers for the three-day symposium included W.Va. Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin, Marshall University President Brad D. Smith, NACo President Mary Jo McGuire, and White House Senior Advisor Lukas McGowan, among many others. 

A featured workshop of the symposium, “Workforce Woes: Identifying and Addressing Rural Labor Challenges,” offered those in attendance the opportunity to hear from industry experts regarding the challenges faced by, and methods for improving, the rural labor market. Moderated by Shawn Milne, director of Economic Development for the Bear River Association of Governments in Utah, the panel included U.S. Department of Labor Deputy Assistant Secretary Lenita Jacobs-Simmons, Amazon Senior Economic Development Manager Jessica Breaux, Workforce WV Development Board Executive Director Barbara Dawes, State Director for the USDA Office of Rural Development Ryan Thorn, and Tammy Jordan, president of the West Virginia-based Fruits of Labor, Inc, who provided a brief overview of her community mission. 

(L – R) Workforce WV Development Board’s Barbara Dawes, Fruits of Labor’s Tammy Jordan, and Amazon’s Jessica Breaux. Photo by Eleanor Rodriguez, RealWV.

“We offer culinary and agricultural training that’s nationally certified through the American Culinary Federation, for individuals that are in recovery for substance-use disorder, as well as at-risk youth as an addiction prevention program,” Jordan said. “Our primary focus is getting individuals that would not have necessarily been hired to have an opportunity to get into not only education, certification, and training – but also simultaneously into employment while advancing their resumes.”

“We believe in their talents and their worth,” Jordan added. “We have a management training program, and we just launched our largest location – which is three stories, three commercial kitchens, 12,000 square feet – with no managers hired. All of this was built by our students, and they are the ones operating it.”

Jordan further added that an upcoming training opportunity, which Fruits of Labor will soon be providing on their 200-plus acre farm, will be the harvesting and preparing of maple syrup.

“So if you come back next year, we’ll have syrup for you to taste,” Jordan told those in attendance.

The panelists discussed the workforce market challenges faced by rural businesses, and how they differ from those experienced by urban employers. Amazon’s Jessica Breaux referenced the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural areas, while Jacobs-Simmons cited transportation. 

An ongoing challenge which Jordan expressed a passionate desire to resolve is the struggle to find affordable and reliable childcare. 

“We had a student that was wanting to enter into the employment program, but had to wait three or four weeks because she could not find childcare for her child,” Jordan said. “This is a single mom in recovery, in a recovery home for mothers and babies. In a desperate situation, she was doing everything she was supposed to be doing. Workforce was working with us, but we had to delay entrance. The child was being transported an hour one way just to be able to facilitate this.”

Workforce WV’s Barbara Dawes reiterated broadband concerns, saying, “Internet does not go down into some of the hollers here in West Virginia. You can’t get broadband through solid rock.”

Dawes noted that many educational and professional training programs require the use of a computer with broadband access to complete. 

“Also, let’s be honest, some people don’t have the funds to go out and buy a computer,” Dawes added. “Some of these people are lucky to put food on their table, let alone buy a computer to use.”

According to Ryan Thorn, housing is a “significant issue,” citing “affordability and the inventory of housing available in rural communities in West Virginia.”

“I can’t vouch for any significant issues in urban communities,” Thorn noted. “[In West Virginia] we don’t have any communities with over 50,000 residents.”

(L – R) Bear River Association of Government’s Shawn Milne, U.S. Department of Labor’s Lenita Jacobs-Simmons, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ryan Thorn, Workforce WV Development Board’s Barbara Dawes, Fruits of Labor’s Tammy Jordan, and Amazon’s Jessica Breaux. Photo by Eleanor Rodriguez, RealWV.

As the event reached its conclusion on Tuesday, Greenbrier County Commission President Tammy Tincher – who also serves on NACo’s Board of Directors – expressed her satisfaction, telling RealWV, “Anytime we can bring positive attention to Greenbrier County, that’s a great thing.” 

Tincher, who was instrumental in bringing the 2023 RAC symposium to White Sulphur Springs, guided attendees on a bus tour of the city which highlighted both the damage and rebuilding effort after the 2016 flood. 

“Having the opportunity to host the symposium has been an amazing opportunity to showcase our community to other rural leaders from all across the United States,” Tincher said. “They were able to see our recreational opportunities, learn more about our flood mitigation projects and redevelopment, workforce training programs, and out local public health challenges and successes.”

“Our communities have so much to be proud of,” Tincher added. “We truly are the heart of America.”

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