Internships and Work-Based Learning: Critical Elements of Building a Sustainable Talent Pipeline by Kirk Cox, President, Virginia Business Higher Education Council
November 10th, 2023

The nationwide race to be the top state in the country for talent is on.

And business and education leaders from across Virginia know that.  As our state seeks to retain its high ranking as one of the best states in the country to do business, we must make building a sustainable talent pipeline our highest priority.

Stephen Moret, the former head of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and current President and CEO of the Strada Education Foundation said it the best:  Virginia’s best economic development opportunity for the future will be to position itself as America’s top state for talent.

The importance of building talent pathways as an economic development imperative for the Commonwealth was driven home at the recent Education and Workforce Conference sponsored jointly by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Business Higher Education Council (VBHEC).  A capacity crowd at the Greater Richmond Convention Center heard leaders from business and education each tell a similar story.

Some employers still struggle to attract qualified applicants for unfilled jobs, and our business leaders pointed out the problem would only get worse in the future. They urged the state to create new and additional hands-on, practical educational and training opportunities for students, to ensure that well-trained and qualified students will be available to meet the needs of the future workforce.

Strong, proven, and successful talent pathway programming already exists, and it is time to build upon that success. This is evident through the Virginia Talent + Opportunity Partnership (VTOP) which connects Virginia businesses that have work-based learning opportunities to Virginia students looking for them, with Virginia’s higher ed institutions serving as the main catalyst.

However, the Commonwealth must strengthen its commitment to paid internships and work-based learning opportunities.  In fact, our goal at VBHEC is that every student who wants a paid internship in their field of study has access to one; and, to make the transition from learning to earning more efficient, more affordable, and more beneficial for students and employers all across Virginia.

I felt so strongly about the value of paid internships that as Speaker of the House of Delegates, the only bill I sponsored was the Innovative Internship Fund.  That faith was justified in a recent poll commissioned by VBHEC which showed that over 80% of voters in both parties believe that additional investment by the state to support paid internships was a very good idea.

It is refreshing to know that there are still issues upon which Republicans, Democrats and Independents can all agree.  But polling research only tells part of the story.

While the polling data lays a strong foundation for understanding why paid internships and work-based learning experiences are so important to Virginians, a series of statewide roundtable discussions sponsored by VBHEC this fall identified some of the challenges faced by students, educational institutions, and employers in making paid internships work in the real world.

We learned that, while internships can make college more affordable, some paid internships do not pay enough to offset student costs in meals, housing and transportation.

We learned that small to medium size employers often do not have the resources to hire interns – and some employers acknowledged they wouldn’t even know how to design an internship program which might work for their business, or how to go about finding suitable candidates.

And, we learned that our colleges and universities are a critical link in helping students and area businesses succeed by creating talent pathways and meaningful internship opportunities that lead to careers and economic growth in each region.

I have found these roundtable discussions to be instructive, and I believe plenty of opportunity exists to create meaningful internships if you know where to look.

These kinds of opportunities give Virginia students just one more reason to stay in state after graduation.  It allows employers to identify new, well-trained, and motivated future employees.  Most importantly, Virginia can reverse this challenge of out-migration of talent that makes us less competitive with other states in our region.

To close, I’ll leave you with a few key findings from a recent study commissioned by VBHEC and conducted by the highly respected Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at U.Va. to examine the economic impact of our higher education system.

The data show that Virginia’s public colleges, universities, and community colleges have a combined economic footprint that contributes $52 billion annually to our Gross State Product. The system also returns approximately $3.8 billion in revenue to the state treasury and supports 188,000 jobs.


In fact, for every one dollar spent on our public higher education system, the result is more than 25 dollars of Virginia gross domestic product and nearly 2 dollars back to the state treasury.


That is a significant return on investment. VBHEC believes that to remain competitive, Virginia must continue investing in talent and our institutions of higher learning. Clearly, it’s a wise choice.