As campaigns across Virginia make their final push to engage voters, disaffection about the election is capturing headlines and salting conversations from kitchen tables to online chats. According to news reports, many voters, especially younger voters, have tuned out or turned off the whole statewide campaign scene claiming fatigue from 2012, disgust with the negative advertising or cynicism about whether any of it really matters to them. Considering that state decisions affect so many aspects of our lives, the reaction is alarming.
Elections do matter, and here in Northern Virginia, they have a profound impact on our quality of life! This region is going to add almost 650,000 jobs in the next decade, and half of them will be new positions that did not previously exist. The half that will be applicants to replace retiring workers will need a higher skill set than their predecessors. According to a 2011 George Mason University study by Dr. Stephen Fuller, over 50 percent of the net new jobs will be in the professional, scientific, technical services and health care sectors.
What does this mean for the voters who live and work here now?
We are going to need an educational system from K-12 through graduate programs at our universities that will prepare our students for the highly skilled workforce they will encounter when they seek employment. That system must include strong community colleges that can build partnerships and training programs with our local Northern Virginia businesses for our future technical support and health care workers. A huge influx of highly skilled workers is arriving over the next decade. Will we be ready?
Our future workforce values walkable communities far more than their parents did. Our transportation infrastructure choices will be key to attracting and retaining a highly skilled population. Smart transit, road and rail priorities will drive more urban centered growth while our ports, airports and freight corridors will impact our commercial mobility. We need to move commuters and commerce. Will we make the necessary transportation investments to remain competitive?
This emerging workforce will not just be highly skilled; they will be innovation leaders, critical thinkers and entrepreneurs. They will expect an open, diverse, inclusive and tolerant society—not one that seeks to isolate or punish groups of people through legislation for their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Will highly educated women—or men—favor a place where birth control or other personal health care decisions are made for them by legislators in Richmond?
We ought to expect that our elected state representatives will vote for Northern Virginia funding and policy priorities. The votes they take today on education, transportation and other government services will shape the kind of society we have 10 years from now. This past legislative session, the legislature passed a bi-partisan transportation bill that will help fund our top regional projects including Dulles Rail. The 2013 budget bill included funds for teacher pay raises, more in state slots at our state universities for our students, and job creating economic development projects. Voters who favor these common sense solutions should take the time to find out how the incumbents really voted and which policies their candidates really support.
The choices for this year’s elections are stark and the stakes are high. The evidence that voters—and especially parents of young children—may be disengaged should raise concerns around every school and business conference table. If our state leaders do not invest in education and transportation or if they allow a culture of intolerance and exclusion to be promoted under the guise of “traditional values,” then our whole state will suffer competitively, and Northern Virginia will suffer the most.
The question for this Nov. 5th is: What kind of Virginia do we want?
The people we choose to represent us will be spending our tax dollars and shaping our communities. They should be voting for our priorities today and for a prosperous future for all those workers who are coming over the next decade. Many of those workers may be our own children. That is why elections really matter. And here in Northern Virginia, we literally cannot afford to sit them out.