Published August 22, 2005

Emphasis on youth



Christine Kennedy and Kevin Warman of Lynchburg's Young Adult Council
Despite gloomy reports of the region's young workers fleeing to more urban hot spots, many young professionals, both natives and newcomers, are indeed here. And they are creating professional, civic and social organizations to enable them to stay here and attract others.

One of the most established of these groups is Lynchburg's Young Adult Council (YAC). With 200 members between the ages of 18 and 35, and an office within the Region 2000 headquarters, the council has an ambitious civic and social agenda.

The group's initiatives include the Young Adult Links of Central Virginia social/networking group, the upcoming "Greener Grass Study" which will benchmark Lynchburg against other urban areas, and the "All 'A' Board Project" which encourages young adults to join local boards.

The YAC satisfies the civic interests of people like Kevin Warman, who come back home in mid-career. A Lynchburg-based technical recruiter with CRT Inc. and a YAC board member, Warman returned to his Forest roots after his first job in Richmond. He describes the council's plans for an ambassador program to help area businesses' recruitment efforts. "We plan to get about 20 volunteers . . . to meet potential and new recruits. They will meet one-to-one to let them know what it's like to be a young professional in the area. We will work directly with the HR departments of the organizations."

Nat Marshall, senior human resources specialist for BWXT in Lynchburg, has a first-hand appreciation for the YAC's activities. "We use them to help orient our new hires," he says. He says YAC's programming appeals to both new and seasoned young professionals in his company. He stresses that retention is a business issue. "We know there's a real good chance [our young engineers] will leave within five years. But it may take three to four years to realize our return on investment [on these employees]."

The YAC began five years ago, but took off two and a half years ago when it was brought under the umbrella of the local Workforce Investment Board. The YAC's mission is "to attract and retain a quality Young Adult workforce in the Region 2000 area."

"We're at the point where we have a group of 10 council members that meet monthly," says Christine Kennedy, vice president of leadership and business development for the Lynchburg Regional Chamber, and YAC chair. These leaders are actively involved in several committees, such as:

* Business - which arranges events for local businesses' interns, and advocates for business issues affecting young adults;

* Social/recreational - responsible for programming networking events;

* Marketing - which oversees database maintenance, the web site, brochures, etc.

"We won't know [our] impact for perhaps 10 years," guesses Kennedy. "But with six colleges in the area, with 13,000 students in their mid-20s and under, we need to find a way to get [graduates] to stay here."

Young professional (YP) groups have been springing up all over the United States recently. A new Web site, YPcommons.org, was established this year to encourage the development of these groups across the United States. There are over 100 such organizations listed in the Web site's directory. The second annual national YP Summit was held in Milwaukee this month, host to 35 YP groups, including Lynchburg's.

While the Lynchburg YP group has a social, civic and economic development focus, the Square Society in Roanoke primarily supports area cultural and nonprofit organizations through its social activities.

Although the organization was founded nine years ago to raise funds for Center in the Square, it was relatively inactive until revitalized two years ago by a new board. "We added more events," says Joey Beck, editor of Roanoke's City Magazine and president of the Square Society. "The first [new event] was a bachelor/bachelorette auction. Then in December 2003 we held our "Cocktail Crawl" [in downtown Roanoke]. We expected 30, but instead 200 people came."

The new activities have been a resounding success. "We held a membership drive in the O. Winston Link museum last March," she says. "We signed up 100 new members that night. We thought: 'Where did all these people come from?'" In the past two years, the Square Society has grown from 50 to 300 members, with another few hundred on its mailing list.

The Society has proved a boon for the local cultural scene. Says Beck, members attend "the symphony, and all the Jefferson Center events-we know all these organizations are scrambling for funding. And since we started [nine years ago], we've given Center in the Square over $30,000." She says the Society's newest initiative is to recruit volunteers for such causes as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, the Interfaith Hospitality Center and Toys for Tots.

Beck recounts another benefit of membership: "There have been a lot of successful couples, and several marriages over the past couple of years." In fact, Beck met her own husband at a Square Society Polo Cup event.

The six-year old Charlottesville Young Professionals (CYP) has decided to focus its energies in one direction. "Our organization really comes down to being a networking/social organization-that's our niche," says Wendy Steesy, senior project manager with UVa's Facilities Management department, and CYP president. "It is really important because Charlottesville as a city is frustrated that our young people leave." Membership has held steady at about 130, she says, "because there are a lot of competing organizations." She adds, "Our strength is that we provide a really good way for people who are new to the area to meet others."

Membership ages range from early 20s to late 40s. Members meet at happy hours, dinners, wine tastings, parties, sporting and theater events. "All my friends came from CYP over the past four years," she says. "I've met their friends, people who used to be members, and other sub-groups that I never would have found out about otherwise."

The group will hold it annual membership party on August 24th at McIntyre Park. A few months ago, Pat Matthews, a young professional from Blacksburg, decided to revive a defunct networking group, renaming it the New River Network. The informal group meets monthly for happy hour at the Sigma Grill at the Corporate Research Center.

"The interesting thing is that [the format] is ultra-simple," he says. "We did that on purpose. There are no dues, no registration; you're not joining a club. We want just want to build something that continuously builds every month." Attendance has grown steadily, with over eighty people participating in the August event.

While more than half of the participants are in their 20s, the rest are a blend of those in their 30s and 40s. "The key word for us is 'professionals,'" he says. Attendees are Radford and Virginia Tech students, professors and employees, along with local business owners and their employees. "It's not just one thing that contributes to the growth of the area," says Matthews, "but the social dynamics is a very important aspect. As Blacksburg has more socializing and networking going for it, it will be easier to keep people here."

(Deborah Nason is a contributing editor for the Journal.)

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