When manufacturers thinking about setting up shop in Southern Virginia visit Pittsylvania County, the county’s economic development director, Matt Rowe, doesn’t just show off expansive, shovel-ready industrial sites. He also touts the region’s workforce, which includes many workers with advanced manufacturing skill sets.
Eighteen percent of Southern Virginia’s labor force works in manufacturing, an industry that has been a central part of the region’s landscape for more than a century. However, as textile, apparel and furniture production moved offshore over the past several decades, many local factories closed. Southern Virginia, however, refused to cast aside its industrial heritage.
The cities of Danville and Martinsville, along with Pittsylvania, Halifax, Patrick and Henry counties, banded together to train workers to participate in a new generation of manufacturing, with a focus on advanced technologies, including robotics, mechatronics, precision machining, computer coding and automation. Along with community college and tech center programs, trade skills have been integrated into local schools’ K-12 curriculum, with dual enrollment courses leading to advanced certifications for high school graduates.
“We’ve invested in workforce programs highly desired by industry,” Rowe says, noting that Pittsylvania and Danville have earmarked more than $70 million for workforce training over the past decade. “The community asked industries what they needed and put significant resources into meeting those needs. Having those skill sets is highly valued by industries. It’s not only kept businesses in place, but it’s helped attract new businesses.”
Corporate investment is surging in Southern Virginia as firms take advantage of available land and talent. During the past six years, new and expanding industries have invested more than $700 million in capital projects and brought 3,200-plus jobs to the region. Much of that largesse has occurred at Cane Creek Centre, an industrial park co-owned by Pittsylvania and Danville; about 1,500 new jobs have been created at the park since 2018. Companies that have moved into Cane Creek in recent years include North America’s largest step van manufacturer, Morgan Olson LLC; indoor vertical produce grower AeroFarms; and Walraven Inc., a manufacturer of installation systems for plumbing and mechanical applications that moved its U.S. headquarters and manufacturing operations from Cadillac, Michigan, to Danville.
Next summer, Tyson Foods will bring nearly 400 jobs to the region when it opens its $300 million, 325,000-square-foot plant at Cane Creek. The food production facility marks the largest economic development project in Pittsylvania to date. While Southern Virginia boasts a central location and lower costs for utilities, labor, raw materials, taxes and real estate than many other U.S. locales, the region’s workforce training program was a major factor in Tyson’s decision to build in the region.
“Tyson saw the technical skill sets we’ve developed and adjusted plans for their facility and made it more automated and technologically advanced,” says Corrie Bobe, Danville’s economic development director. “The average wage increased, compared to what was originally planned. That’s a large success for our community.”
The region’s focus on preparing students for the manufacturing workforce was key to Tyson choosing to build in Southern Virginia, says Nancy Frank, plant manager of Tyson Foods Danville. “We’ve partnered with area high schools [and] community colleges, including Danville Community College, to offer a new maintenance technology training program and made significant local and state investments in training programs and facilities across the region to help find highly skilled workers and create pathways for employment for our future team members.