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Workforce Development Is The Key To Better Jobs in Small Communities: OP-ED

When my business partner David Johnson and I started our fintech consulting firm in 2009, the U.S. Virgin Islands became our home. It made a lot of business sense for us, considering the incentives the local government offers through its Economic Development Commission Tax Incentive Program. In exchange for those incentives, we committed to contributing to the territory’s economic development.

One of the ways we’ve committed to doing so is by hiring qualified USVI residents to fill vacant positions. But within a small community whose workforce is about 34,650, recruitment takes effort.

As we brainstormed strategies for recruiting top talent, it made us step back to look at the bigger picture. It became clear that supporting workforce development was essential if we wanted to see a growing pool of workers with niche skills like data science.

In small communities like the USVI, there are a few ways that businesses in the private sector can contribute to an enhanced workforce. Here are three.

#1 Understand context.

The first step in supporting local workforce development is understanding the challenges within the context of your community’s history.

For example, the U.S. Virgin Islands has relied exclusively on individual pockets of industry such as the oil refining, tourism, and rum industries. In a small place, it’s easier to manage fewer industries. However, it presents challenges for workforce development as there’s little diversity in the jobs created and little diversity in the skillset represented across the workforce. Then the people who are talented in the underrepresented industries leave the community in search of other opportunities.

We know that significant numbers of highly educated and highly trained Virgin Islanders are leaving each year in pursuit of experiences that will challenge them and fulfill their economic goals. But we don’t even have access to accurate statistics that can offer more insight because the current workforce lags in data analytics training — more on that later.

Relying heavily on volatile industries also risks losing highly trained individuals in the current workforce when markets shift. This type of exodus isn’t new to the USVI either. When the Hovensa Oil Refinery shuttered in 2012, it meant the loss of 2,000 jobs and triggered a huge migration.

And what about the people who remain? Many would like the opportunity to earn more or advance professionally, but factors such as gaps in their education have made it difficult. Others have business ideas that could benefit the community but don’t have enough money to turn their startup ideas into reality.

Understanding challenges like these is the gateway for businesses to make community impact.

#2 Empower with education.

The best way to empower the existing and emerging workforce is with education that is meaningful. If your organization wants to make an impact, allocate your charity dollars toward educational initiatives that will support your industry and the economy overall.

At our company, Cane Bay Partners VI, we combine technology, data analytics, and financial experience to help fintech companies better manage their resources. The people who work for us have strong backgrounds in risk analytics, marketing analytics, economics, and finance.

So naturally, we’re interested in promoting education related to the fintech industry. Since our company is based in the USVI, much of our charitable giving has supported math, science, and technology education in the territory. We’re especially proud of promoting data science education as we’ve seen the power of data-driven decisions through our fintech consulting work.

But data analytics isn’t just for the fintech world. For example, data analytics could help us understand the extent of the “brain drain” in small communities like the USVI and offer insights on how to mitigate that challenge. The people who learn how to harness data to offer similiar insights will be assets in any industry.

We understand that a workforce trained to leverage data analytics can make a game-changing difference in business, government, and people’s individual lives.

That’s why we’ve contributed more than $125,000 to the University of the Virgin Islands in support of data science and data analytics initiatives over the past 11 years.

Last August, the university offered a data science minor for the first time ever. Cane Bay Partners has supported the program in several ways, including monetary gifts.

In May, the university also announced the launch of a data science certificate program designed to help professionals advance their careers by leveraging applied data science. I was proud to be part of the advisory board that developed the curriculum for that program.

We’ve also promoted applied data science with our Data Science in Action Webinar for university students exploring career options.

Overall, the idea is to equip the existing and emerging workforce with the tools to offer more value and to earn more.

#3 Support policies that fuel innovation and entrepreneurship.

Another way to support workforce development in a small community is to support policies that reward good business ideas.

One of the hardest things a person can do is start their first business because, many times, it means putting up a lot of their own money. If you look closely, you may find a lot of entrepreneurs in your community with great business ideas that died due to lack of startup funding.

Even businesses that are already successful in other locations and could offer value to your community may need economic support to relocate.

Policies that offer economic incentives are powerful workforce development tools. If implemented correctly, these policies ultimately attract new business and support startups while creating more jobs and economic stability.

The USVI Senate Committee on Finance passed a bill in May to allocate $6 million to a revolving loan fund. If signed into law, it would fund loans for eligible businesses in industries with potential to spur economic development in the territory. I testified in support of the bill.

The local university’s Research and Technology Park (RTPark), the entity that will be administering the loans, has already identified potential technology-based businesses that could be beneficiaries. These potential beneficiaries could generate 2,800 new jobs in the USVI over five years.

It is my belief that we need to create opportunities that give people hope — hope in knowing that once they’ve put in the work, there are jobs waiting for them where they can make more money.

The concept of retooling our workforce means providing training opportunities for people who want to take the next step up in their careers. Then our youth can take advantage of the jobs left vacant and contribute to society in ways they aren’t always given the chance to.

To make this shift, we need new businesses and new jobs — better jobs, in fact. In the context of the USVI community, the VI Catalyst Revolving Loan Fund is one of many ways to ensure those opportunities will be there.

Better jobs are the impetus behind workforce development. And that’s the takeaway. If you want to see your local workforce step up their game, give them something to step up to.

Wrapping It Up

A strong workforce is the key to sustainability at every level. For the individual who contributes to the strength of the workforce, it means marketability and opportunity for upward mobility. For a business, it means being able to recruit from a pool of talented people who can propel the business forward. And for the community, it means economic development and growth.

There will always be challenges, especially in very small communities. But your business can be part of the solution.

Key Takeaways

· Seek to understand unique local challenges.

· Sponsor educational initiatives that empower the existing and emerging workforce.

· Support policies that will foster innovation and create better job opportunities for residents.

Kirk Chewning is one of the founding partners of Cane Bay VI, LLLP on St. Croix.

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Kirk Chewning

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