For many people outside of this area, the name “Hampton Roads” is confusing. The newer term “Seven Cities” is even less familiar. The older name that still lingers, “Tidewater“, actually angers many locals, for various reasons. It’s roughly 3+ hours drive South of Washington, DC. An hour and thirty minutes southeast drive from Richmond. Roughly 4 hours drive from Raleigh-Durham, NC. It sits on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, along with the Elizabeth River and James River.
Geo-politically, it consists of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News and Hampton. But when you factor in typical commuters as part of the overall mix, it adds Williamsburg, Yorktown, Smithfield, Surry, and northern North Carolina (Elizabeth City, Gates County, Knott’s Island, etc.)
Hampton Roads is home to major facilities for all U.S. military branches, as well as NASA, the CIA, and private companies such as Stihl, Northrop-Grumman (or Huntington-Ingalls), Anheuser-Busch, Norfolk-Southern, and Maersk. Smaller, but no less important players include Operation Smile, LifeNet Health, and education institutions such as Old Dominion University, the College of William & Mary, Christopher Newport University, Norfolk State University and many more. You can find tourists here from all parts of the world, as well as transient and transplanted NATO personnel and there families. It is indeed becoming a more diverse cultural region year by year.
Aside from the historical aspects, the military and governmental aspects, the geographic aspects, it is for all intents and purposes one of the most populated regions of the state. Virginia Beach alone is the single-most populated city in the state, at just under 450,000 (per 2010 census). The largest city in Northern Virginia is Alexandria, at roughly 168,000. However, when considering the more realistic metro-region aspects (as does the U.S. Census Bureau), Northern Virginia is tops.
Like most coastal regions in America, the population continues to grow [link]. But there’s more to this rank and file distinction than that.
Northern Virginia is obviously more infused with Federal government activity, and with that comes the concentricity of lobbyists, and private contractors, as well as state and municipal operations from Maryland and Virginia. Hampton Roads, by contrast, is more at the “tail-end of the dog” when it comes to the long chain that starts with decision-making and ending at spending and execution. Budgets are debated and approved in Washington and Richmond, and the influence-peddling occurs mostly around those two circus rings as well. What Hampton Roads gets are the results of that.
People vs. IT Jobs
According to 2010 census data reports, Northern Virginia holds roughly 5.63 million people [link]. Hampton Roads on the other hand holds roughly 1.67 million people. That means the DC metro region has roughly 3-1/2 times the population. But how does this general ratio compare with the IT job postings with respect to each region?
A cursory search of IT jobs using Dice.com over the past ten years has been fairly consistent. Some spikes caused bigger and smaller gaps between the two regions, particularly in early 2008 and mid 2010. But since 2011, the relative numbers have been pretty consistent. As of October 2014, for example, the results for “systems engineer” within a 25 mile radius of each center (DC vs. Norfolk), yielded the following:
Norfolk area: 83
Admittedly subjective and anecdotal, it still provides a general comparison. “Systems Engineer” is about as ubiquitous in the IT world as “programmer” or “systems administrator”, but the title “systems engineer” generally filters down to more relevant postings than the other two, as they often include secondary and tertiary roles and titles that are not seen as frequently with an SE position description. So there is some rationale to my madness.
By comparison, a search on “systems administrator” for each region, using the same parameters, returned 21 matches in Hampton Roads, versus 646 for DC-metro.
But back to the topic. So, with more administrative and government leanings in the North, and more manufacturing, tourism and logistics leanings in the South, the ceterus parabus aspect should weigh fairly even with regards to computer technology and the human demand it entails. Right? Maybe?
Then again, with a population difference of 3X that would naively modify that equation to something in the same general ratio. But instead, it ends up being roughly 13-1/2 times. Why so different?
The nearest Microsoft office? A few hours away. The nearest significant presence of any major IT vendor? A few hours away. You’re talking DC Metro, Raleigh-Durham, NC, or Charlotte, NC. A trace number might be found in the Richmond area.
Even the vendors don’t find it beneficial to open a shop in the area. The most you can expect today is rep who makes house calls.
Some related quotes I’ve collected (names not provided or withheld by request):
“Hampton Roads might as well be the Siberia of IT jobs in Virginia. There aren’t the local user groups, vendors and opportunities you see in DC, Boston, New York or even Charlotte.” – anonymous systems engineer.
“I’d love to move back there. But the IT jobs just don’t pay anywhere near what other cities a few hours away offer.” – anonymous consultant speaking about moving away from Norfolk to Fairfax, VA.
“We’ve tried many times to get a user group off the ground there, but it’s too scattered and the transportation grid sucks. No one wants to travel after work hours like they do in other coastal cities.” – anonymous DBA in Newport News.
“If it had better IT jobs and more going on, it would be the perfect place to live and work. The weather is awesome. The beaches and mountains are pretty close. DC and Raleigh are within a few hours drive. Yeah, if only.” – anonymous engineer in Charlotte.
“I don’t get it. There’s a ton of engineering and manufacturing going on here. There’s R&D. There’s a small, but growing arts and music scene. I don’t know why the IT vendor side hasn’t picked up at all here. You have to travel to find a good conference and we have some fantastic local venues right here. From the 80’s until now. It just hasn’t happened like a lot of us expected.” – anonymous CAD/CAM engineer-developer in Virginia Beach.
I’m not offering answers to this. I’m just curious as to what others think about the contrasting numbers. What are your thoughts on this? Will Hampton Roads ever blossom like some had assumed, or will it always remain behind other metropolitan regions that surround it?
1. Search by “systems engineer” using Dice.com for 25 mile and 40 mile radius of Washington, DC and Norfolk, VA.
2. Naval Operations Base, Norfolk; Naval Station Oceana; Langley Air Force Base; Fort Eustis; Dam Neck and Little Creek; Fort Story; Cheatham Annex and Camp Peary; NASA LARC;