Overall, Virginia boasts one of the best-educated and most productive workforces in the country. It employs a higher percentage of people in science and engineering than any other state in the nation, and has been successful both in providing higher education opportunities to its population and in attracting highly educated workers from other states. However, regional educational attainment varies considerably, suggesting that weaknesses exist.
Why is This Important?
Workforce quality is closely tied to labor productivity, making it a key determinant of economic growth and wages. In today's dynamic economy, jobs increasingly require education beyond a high school diploma. Education not only prepares individuals for the tasks required by a job, but also enhances an individual's ability to adapt to new working environments.
In recent years, knowledge-intensive industries have become a key contributor to the growth of the national economy and to U.S. exports abroad. Skilled workers in these industries generally experience lower rates of unemployment and faster wage growth than those in other sectors.
How is Virginia Doing?
The data reveals two differing views of Virginia's workforce. One view presents a remarkably well-educated labor force with a significant number of advanced degree holders. The other shows a low level of educational attainment among large segments of the population in some geographic areas.
Virginia has an impressively high percentage of skilled workers, reflecting the state's large knowledge-intensive sector. Virginia again ranked first in the nation in the percentage of its workforce (7.6 percent) in science and engineering (S&E) occupations for 2012. Maryland's percentage of workers in S&E was 7.2 percent, while North Carolina (4.3%) and Tennessee (3.0%) were lower than the national average of 4.6 percent.
The percentage of Virginia's workforce with advanced degrees also demonstrates Virginia's commitment to education, as well as its ability to attract educated workers. In 2012, Virginia ranked fourth in the nation for the most master's degrees (10.8%), sixth for the most professional degrees (2.4%), and sixth for doctorates (1.6%) as a percentage of the population age 25 and over. Nationally, 7.7 percent of the population had a master's degree, 2.0 percent had a professional degree, and 1.3 percent a doctorate degree.
In comparing Virginia to its peers, Maryland ranked higher than Virginia in all three degrees, with 11.6 percent having master's degrees, 2.9 percent professional degrees, and 2.4 percent doctorate degrees; Maryland was also the leading state for doctorate degrees. Virginia, however, outperformed both North Carolina (6.7% master's degrees, 1.4% professional degrees, and 1.2% doctorate degrees) and Tennessee (5.9% master's degrees, 1.6% professional degrees, and 1.0% doctorate degrees). Massachusetts again led the nation in master's degrees (11.9%) and tied with Maryland in professional degrees (2.9%).
Worker productivity, defined as output per worker, is an alternate measure of workforce quality. Unlike educational attainment, which captures the inputs into workforce quality, worker productivity measures the average output of workers. High labor productivity typically results in higher standards of living.
Virginia's productivity mirrored the national average until the late 1990s, when the state started growing more rapidly. In 2012, Virginia's output-per-worker value -- $79,114 -- was higher than the national average of $74,775 (adjusted in year 2005 dollars; see Data Sources note). Virginia ranked 14th among all the states. North Carolina ($72,881), and Tennessee ($65,313) had a lower rate of productivity than Virginia, while Maryland ($79,539) was a bit higher. Delaware ($104,872) was again the leading state in worker productivity in 2012.
These achievements in workforce quality, however, mask a weakness in Virginia's labor market. In 2012, 12.1 percent of Virginia adults lacked a high school diploma – the 29th highest among the 50 states. Montana was the lowest at 7.2 percent. The percentage of Virginia's population without a diploma was lower than North Carolina (14.8%) and Tennessee (14.9%), but higher than Maryland (10.9%). The national average was 13.7 percent.
Within Virginia, rural regions have the highest percentage of people without diplomas, which poses a serious impediment to economic growth. In 2008-2012, the percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma was 24 percent in the Southside and Southwest regions and above 17 percent in the Eastern and Valley regions.
However, these represent significant improvements from 2000, when more than 34 percent of Southside and Southwest region residents 25 years and older were without a high school diploma. In the Eastern and Valley regions, over 24 percent did not have a diploma.
What Influences Workforce Quality?
The existence of a skilled workforce is an indicator of both the presence of industries that need them and a measure of a state's ability to educate or attract skilled workers. Thus, workforce quality can be improved both by investing in education and by creating a business-friendly environment that attracts knowledge-intensive businesses and the skilled workforce that these businesses employ.
Looked at another way, low educational attainment reflects in part the lower number of high quality employment opportunities in some regions of the state. Without employers who value educated workers, individuals have less reason to invest in education. Those who do obtain more education often migrate to higher-employment regions.
What is the State's Role?
States can create a high quality workforce by investing in education and skill training and creating educational and workforce systems that can adapt quickly to new skill requirements demanded by the market. Virginia’s greatest contribution to workforce readiness is in the more than 65,000 degrees that are produced in its public colleges and universities every year. In addition to this, over 54,000 career readiness certificates, which certify individual employability skills, have been awarded by community colleges and one-stop employment centers since the program began in 2004.
Virginia is also working to retrain workers through its Workforce Investment Act (WIA) program, which assists older youth, adults, and dislocated workers in finding and keeping new jobs.
States can also indirectly improve their workforce quality by promoting an environment that attracts knowledge-intensive businesses. Once these businesses enter the market, they will then demand skilled workers, which in turn will induce more individuals to invest in their education, as well as attract skilled labor from other states.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
S&E Occupations -- National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering
www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/ (updated biennially in January).
S&E occupations are defined by 77 standard occupational codes that encompass mathematical, computer, life, physical, and social scientists; engineers; and post-secondary teachers in any of these S&E fields. People with job titles such as manager are excluded. Because of this difference and the sample-based nature of the data, estimates for sparsely populated states and the District of Columbia may be imprecise.
Note: The District of Columbia has been omitted from the chart. The District of Columbia is an outlier with 9.7 percent in S&E occupations, but this is partly due to a high percentage of people working in or with the federal government.
Advanced Degree Educational
Attainment -- American Community Survey, U.S. Census (updated
annually in September)
Less than High School Diploma -- U.S. Census,
Educational Attainment 2000
and American Community Survey 2012; 2008-2012
regional figures are based on American
Community Survey 5-year estimates between
January 2008 and December 2012. http://factfinder2.census.gov
(updated annually in December)
Worker Productivity -- Calculations
based on gross domestic product and employment
data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis
dollars are measured in terms of 2005
chained dollars. The District of Columbia
is excluded in the state rankings.
(updated annually in November)
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.