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Mountain State Millennials: Generation WV expands its mission of attracting, retaining young talent


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Natalie Roper figures there are three things West Virginians need to know about Millennials: They can’t stay where there are no jobs; they won’t stay in a place they don’t like; and they want to stay where they can make a difference in the communities around them.

Generation West Virginia members often volunteer throughout the state as part of their organized activities.
(Generation West Virginia photo)

Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, wants that place to be the Mountain State.

“There’s potential for young people in West Virginia to make a difference,” Roper said. “Millennials are one of the most impact-driven generations our country has ever seen. Over 50 percent of Millennials want to start their own business, and they’re using the social impacts of a community to decide if they want to work there. With the small cities and towns like we have in West Virginia, young people really can make their ideas happen — they can go quickly from idea to action.

Definitions vary, but Millennials are typically defined as the generation born between 1980 and the year 2000, give or take a couple years. The Center for Generational Kinetics in Texas says the way this generation views jobs, sales and marketing “challeng(es) many conventional strategies and approaches.” Millennials have grown up with technology and prefer to channel routine communications through texts, emails and video-conferencing rather than face-to-face meetings.

Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia

The Ivey Business Journal says Millennials “are well educated, skilled in technology, very self-confident, able to multi-task and have plenty of energy. They have high expectations for themselves, and prefer to work in teams, rather than as individuals. Millennials seek challenges, yet work-life balance is of utmost importance to them. They do, however, realize that their need for social interaction, immediate results in their work and desire for speedy advancement may be seen as weaknesses by older colleagues.”

Generation West Virginia is a statewide organization founded about 10 years ago. Roper joined Generation West Virginia in 2014. Since then, it’s doubled in size, added its first program director and increased its impact through additional programming such as Young Professional Week, Generation Kickstart (interactive sessions and workshops to give young professionals a taste of Generation West Virginia’s opportunities) and Impact fellowships. All are aimed at attracting and retaining Millennials.

Roper considers them to be the state’s lifeblood.

“We are the only organization in the country doing what we do,” she said. “While we are not the only state struggling with the out-migration of young people, we are the only organization in the country dedicated to attracting and retaining young talent at the state level.”

Roper said the organization’s combination of policy, fellowship and chapter-based programming “allows us to systematically address” that mission.

“We lose population every year,” Roper said of West Virginia. “We’ve been losing population since 1950. did a study that showed we lose almost three out of four WVU grads within five years of them graduating, so we’re losing our young people. Young people are one of our most important resources. We have people who can work in companies here, but instead they move to places with a young work force, places where they have peers. When we’re losing population, we’re losing our ability to attract business.”

And attracting business is vital, she adds. “It’s about the tax base. If we don’t take it seriously, we won’t be able to sustain our economy. Our economy depends on a thriving population of young people.”

Building community

By the time Generation West Virginia formed in 2007, the youth movement was already in full swing, and local chapters are scattered around the Mountain State — Generation New River Gorge, Generation Charleston, Generation GAP, Generation Greenbrier Valley, Generation Morgantown, Generation Putnam, Generation Randolph, Generation Huntington, North Central Young Leaders, OV Connect, Pendleton County YPC, Young Professionals of the Eastern Panhandle and Young Emerging Leaders of the Mid-Ohio Valley.Led by volunteers, the chapters are hosted by their local chambers of commerce, economic development authorities or community foundations. The chapters have a shared mission — to develop and sustain a network of young professionals, create programming that empowers and inspires a new generation of leaders, give young people a voice in government and redefine West Virginia as a land of opportunity. They operate independently, though Generation West Virginia partners with them to promote their shared mission.“Oftentimes, we think of being engaged in your community as doing things like voting and those types of things,” Generation Morgantown’s Marissa Russell said. “Those are great things, but at the same time we need people to join the Bicycle Board, we need folks who are willing to work with the city on events they’d like to see come to town. It can be hard for young professionals to get plugged in to the right places. We like to think our group helps young professionals get plugged in to whatever it is they want to do in the community.”

Generation Morgantown’s Marissa Russell

Russell said the Morgantown chapter’s organized activities include First Friday Happy Hours, a monthly Best in Brunch Tour of Morgantown, voter education activities, mentoring young people and meeting with community leaders. The group is planning to start an informal trail running group, as well as peer mentoring. It’s the spontaneous activities, the ones the chapter leader’s didn’t schedule, that make Russell smile.

“Easter Sunday, we had a number of members who did not make the trip home for the holiday,” she said. “Instead, they all went out to brunch together. That’s not something we had planned; it was not a Generation event; it was not something we’d organized. But all of them met in our group, and none of them were going home, so they all had Easter together.”

That’s significant, she said, “because if you don’t have a community of friends, then you’re not tied to that community in any way, shape or form.”

“We want young professionals to stay in West Virginia, to realize there are a lot of opportunities for young people to get involved and play whatever part they want to play” in building a stronger community, Russell said.

‘No place like home’
Jennifer Wheeler, Generation Huntington

says experience has taught her there really is no place like home.After earning her bachelor’s in journalism at Marshall University in 2007, Wheeler went off to find fame and fortune elsewhere — the Big Apple.“Living in NYC, my morning consisted of walking to the subway, followed by two trains and a shuttle, and at the end of the hour and a half I would be (at) work in Norwalk (Connecticut),” she said. “It seemed longer on the way back to the city at the end of a long day. I also recall that my part of the rent on my last Manhattan apartment, a third-floor walk-up over top of a cigar bar, was exactly three times my current mortgage, home owners and property tax combined.


“Here, I can leave my house, drop off my dry cleaning and still be at work in under 10 minutes. In Huntington, we have our own symphonic orchestra, tons of museums, parks and access to arena concerts and theater — all the amenities a young professional could want. And thanks to the internet, there really isn’t anything that isn’t sold here that we can’t have in under 24 hours.”

Wheeler says there’s a quality of life here in the Mountain State that other cities and states can’t match, and that has a lot to do with Generation Huntington.

“You get out of it what you put into it,” she said. “Most of my very close professional and personal relationships have developed out of my affiliation with this organization, so I would say it’s a great opportunity to both socialize and grow your business and build your professional network. And if you attend the events and get to know people, you’ll find they call on you to do business.”

Wheeler said members also tend to grow into leadership roles in their industries and communities.

“It’s tremendously important to improving the quality of life here that they have peers they both relate to and have come up through the ranks with,” she said. “Obviously, we need to be developing the next generation of leaders and groups like Generation Huntington provide a training ground to empower leaders, and better our community. And by doing so, we’re improving the network of friends and professional allies a member can have; that improves their quality of life and helps ensure they want to stay here.”

‘How I was raised’

At 35, Generation Randolph’s Kate Reed says she’s on the fringe of Millennial-hood.“For me and other Millennials, there is a need to give back to the community,” said Reed, who also serves on the Generation West Virginia board. “For me, that’s how I was raised. I don’t know if it’s West Virginia generally or me specifically, but I need to be a part of something bigger than what’s going on in my day-to-day life. I think that’s a common trend among Millennials.“Young people in this community, we see problems all around us — not just as a state, but as a country and a world. To have a unified community is important, and I feel personally connected to the people I’m involved with. I feel like together we can do much more than we could do on our own.”

Kate Reed, Generation Randolph
An Elkins native, Reed earned her undergraduate degree at West Virginia Wesleyan, then headed to grad school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She ended up marrying and living in the nation’s capital for seven years before heading home.

“It’s hard when you’re just a group of volunteers,” she said. “We don’t have an executive director for our local group, just young people who want to make a difference. That’s the hard thing, for newcomers to make connections and find fun things to do in the community — but there’s so much more we can do.

“I’d love to work toward creating job opportunities, but I don’t think we can do it with a purely volunteer staff. If we had a full-time director we could work closely with the Chamber and Development Authority and it could become reality. But we’re limited by time constraints and the number of people here and willing to do the work. We’re a small community and a small organization.”

Reed said Generation Randolph has about 100 members, and she credits the programming they do with helping grow the organization.

“‘Joggers and Lagers,’ that’s one of my favorites,” she said. “It meets once a month. We also partner with the Main Street program and the city of Elkins and run a specified route through town, then when we finish, we patronize some of the businesses along the way. We just did a debate for candidates who were running for office. We also do volunteer efforts — blood drives, food drives with the Humane Society, some volunteer efforts with Main Street. We’ve also done a couple membership drives at local businesses. I think that’s what’s driven our numbers — we try to offer a variety of different activities.”

‘Turning things around’

Russell, who graduated from WVU with a degree in political science in 2015, is a VISTA worker with the West Virginia Community Development Hub in Fairmont. Like other Millennials, she believes work “should be impactful.”“I’m not sure what planted that seed, but it’s something worthwhile,” Russell adds. “I don’t want to be a person who does work that isn’t worthwhile. I personally have a hard time imagining myself doing something that isn’t impactful.Reed said she feels like Millennials “are turning things around” here in the Mountain State.

“More and more I’m seeing it,” she said. “Young West Virginians have more of a voice than maybe young people in other states … . Our collective voice is reaching more people. You’re hearing more stories about success in West Virginia — how people want and need to be in West Virginia.”

Building on that momentum is crucial, she adds.

“We live in an aging state. We’re the butt of a lot of jokes; it seems like we get a lot of bad press and people are leaving the state in droves. To have something that encourages people who want to stay here, something that captures the kids as they come out of college … it’s important to keep them here. The impact of that is huge.”

Russell said Generation Morgantown and the other chapters are trying to make newcomers feel at home in their communities.

“People don’t always realize West Virginia is a great place to be,” she said. “I love this state and grew up here, and I didn’t always recognize it’s a great place. But people now see the challenges we have here and are seeing them as more and more approachable. Together, if we all do our part, we can make this a place young people want to live, work and play.

“We’re at a difficult moment in the evolution of our state, but I think people recognize that while West Virginia has challenges, they are all fixable and we can all play a part in fixing them. One thing that keeps me here is that I like feeling like I can make a difference, and I feel like what I’m doing is making a difference.”

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