Community leaders seek broad input to address central Valley’s key workforce concerns

By Eric Gorton, Contributor

Business, nonprofit and other community leaders from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are already talking about ways to address transportation, affordable housing and childcare hurdles in the central Shenandoah Valley.

But they say even more people need to join the conversation to find solutions, in part because every community has its own unique challenges around the three issues.

“Two heads are certainly better than one, three are better than two,” said Chris Quinn, president and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this month, the chamber announced that transportation, affordable housing and childcare are key workforce concerns that must be addressed and that require input from a wide range of perspectives.

“The chamber is committed to working and solving these challenging issues,” Quinn said in a press release announcing the chamber’s policy priorities. “Many organizations have come to the same conclusion as we have and we look forward to having a community dialogue.”

Complicating the pursuit of solutions is the complex ways the three issues are intertwined, “like pieces of yarn that have gotten all tangled up,” said Carla Moody, director of Smart Beginnings Greater Harrisonburg, a non-profit community coalition that works with teachers, parents and the community to ensure that area children have access to high-quality early care, health, and education that supports school readiness.

“Just like pulling apart a knot, we’re going to have to take these problems on from many different angles.” Moody said. “There is no one-and-done solution that is going to ‘fix it,’ but working together, these problems are solvable.”

Providing an example of the kinds of hurdles people face, Quinn said to consider an employer that is lacking staffing and someone who really wants to apply for the job but can’t because they can’t find childcare. And even if they can find someone to watch their children, can they get to the job? What if they don’t have a car? Are they located in an area with public transportation that can get them to the job?

“What starts to happen is you start to see a never-ending cycle,” Quinn said. “That’s why these three issues can’t be talked about in silos.”

Childcare affects entire community

This week, the Chamber, the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, and Smart Beginnings will meet with leaders from the local business community to ask who else needs to be part of the conversation. That discussion will center on the question of how childcare is affecting businesses.

“While this Summit is just the beginning of the conversation, it is in and of itself a positive result,” Moody said, noting that a robust economy requires a stable workforce and a stable workforce requires equitable and affordable child care options. 

“It’s easy to think that this issue only impacts a small portion of our residents, but truly it impacts all of us,” she said.

Affordable housing summit planned

Another meeting to discuss the issues is a Community Housing Summit on Saturday, Oct. 30 at James Madison University. Sponsored by The Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority and James Madison University’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, the discussion will take place from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. in the Madison Union Ballroom. Free registration for the meeting, which can be attended in-person or virtually, is available online.

Quinn said the issues are not new or unique to the Shenandoah Valley, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added some new twists. Supply chain issues lead to delays in adding new housing units and also increase cost; childcare centers may not be able to operate at full capacity due to social distancing protocols.

“We’re always in contact with chambers across the country and seeing different things that they’re doing, they’re looking at these issues as well,” Quinn said. “Every community is slightly different so they may have different solutions or specific challenges, but overall, these issues are still prominent for everybody. . . . Even across our community here, different parts of the community have different issues and challenges that they need to focus on.”

Quinn said there might be some quick fixes for some issues in some places, but they need to be identified. 

“I think the key is everyone agreeing what those low-hanging fruits are so we can all go after them together as opposed to all off into different avenues and that shotgun approach. I think we want a rifled approach and everyone marching in the same step,” he said.

On the bright side, said Quinn, who relocated from Florida this year to lead the local chamber, community leaders are willing to do what’s needed.

“Even if it’s a very difficult conversation, very difficult research, whatever it might be, there hasn’t been a single group or organization that we’ve talked to that has said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that,’” he said. 

Moody said, “Child care, housing and transportation impact our whole community and it’s wonderful to see our Friendly City pulling together to tackle these issues.” 

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