From the moment Ascend WV — the remote work program offering cash and recreation incentives to out-of-state workers — was revealed, people (including us) asked, “What about West Virginians who want to stay but can’t afford to?”
WVU and Marshall seemed to have listened. At the annual Chamber of Commerce Conference last week, leaders from the state’s two largest schools announced the First Ascent program. First Ascent is similar to Ascend WV but will be open to WVU and Marshall students in their last year of school and/or who have graduated within the last year; and who are working or have an offer to work remote/hybrid or have an entrepreneurial offer. (According to its site, the program will link interested individuals who aren’t working remote with WVU and Marshall alumni who may be able to help them get a job offer.)
First Ascent offers many of the same recreational perks and co-working spaces as its predecessor, plus a remote work certificate program. It does not, however, offer the same cash incentive as Ascend WV.
When we heard about First Ascent, our first thought was “It’s about time.” West Virginia has been suffering a brain drain for decades, and it’s only gotten worse as the Mountain State has failed to provide economic opportunity for the highly educated and skilled. College graduates have fled for locales that can offer jobs and careers in line with their degrees — as well as a decent paycheck.
But West Virginians value their roots. Some have roots so deep they can’t fathom living anywhere else. Which means they’ve settled for minimum wage jobs that make no use of their education or pursued work unrelated to their skills and passions. Because that’s the compromise many young West Virginians have had to make: Settle for less — or leave.
First Ascent may be the first step to reversing the long trend of talent-loss and to balancing out the trade-offs so many have made just to remain here.
The program WVU and Marshall have crafted is a great starting point. However, we have some recommendations for improvement.
First, the program should be open to any West Virginia resident who graduated from an institution of higher education in West Virginia. This would allow the program to help a broader swath of young people, as well as gain access to a wider alumni network and more funding prospects.
Second, instead of being limited to current seniors and very recent graduates, eligibility should be expanded to people who graduated in the last five years. We say this because many young professionals were either just entering the workforce or just becoming established in their careers when the pandemic hit. Many of those were the first to lose their jobs (as the saying goes, “last in, first out”), and it’s been difficult to break back into the professional labor force.
Finally, while the First Ascent site does say it’s “happy to work with you to ensure a successful transition to your new home,” the program may wish to offer some help with moving expenses. It seems only fair considering Ascend WV participants got $12,000 cash, ostensibly to help them move to West Virginia — and of which only 46% actually remained. A similar offer for First Ascent would be an even better investment; after all, these are West Virginians doing everything they can to stay in the place they love.