Sunday, December 31, 2017

If Jobs Come, Will We Have Workers?

After seeing years of rising unemployment, West Virginia may be on the cusp of an economic boom that is sorely needed to move the state away from its historical reliance on coal mining operations as a driver of employment

The $1.6 billion road bond project, championed by Governor Jim Justice, that voters recently approved could bring thousands of construction and related jobs to the state, as well as new and improved roads and bridges that will benefit citizens and businesses alike.

 There are two major natural gas pipeline projects in the works that may bring jobs, tax revenue and royalty revenue to the state and its residents.

Proctor & Gamble is constructing a new plant in the Eastern Panhandle, and both Toyota and Hino Motors are expanding their existing operations in the state.

China Energy, the world's biggest energy company, has expressed interest in investing billions of dollars into natural gas, power generation and chemical manufacturing operations to be located in West Virginia.

All of this is indeed wonderful news. However, one thing that hasn't been discussed much, at least not under the light of public scrutiny, is exactly who will fill these new jobs.

Concerns have already been voiced by some of the companies involved as to whether they will be able to find enough qualified employees without looking outside West Virginia.

It's common -- and shameful -- knowledge that the opioid epidemic has made it difficult for existing West Virginia businesses to find potential employees who can pass a drug screen.

To be fair, the pill problem is a national one with employers across the country facing the same issues finding "clean" workers. However, in West Virginia opioid abuse has become so rampant that the state now leads the country in drug overdose deaths per capita.

Nearly 20 percent of working-age West Virginia residents are on disability -- well above the national average of 10 percent. The state has seen an exodus of its young people, who depart in search of greener pastures as soon as they have finished their education (the median age in West Virginia is 41.9).

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is the large number of West Virginians who have simply stopped looking for work. The state's labor-force participation rate -- the percentage of civilians 16 and older who either have a job or are actively looking for one -- stands at 53.1 percent, the lowest rate in the country.

While it's easy to blame this number on the slump in the coal industry, West Virginia's labor force participation rate has actually been in decline since the Bureau of Labor began tracking this statistic in 1976. West Virginia is also the only state to see its employment-to-population ratio drop below 50 percent at any time during that period.

West Virginia may be poised for an economic revolution, but the state must have a ready, willing and able-bodied labor force capable of competing against out-of-state workers for good jobs.

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