The following editorial appeared in The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on Sept. 6:
Only about half of the adults in West Virginia are working.
That alarming statistic has made headlines around the state over the past year, and it was the central themes of one of the major presentations at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting and Business Summit at The Greenbrier last week.
“This issue is related to all economic problems in one way or another,” economist Dr. John Deskins of West Virginia University told the summit audience. “It’s fundamental and there’s no way we are going to get where we need to be unless we find a way to overcome this tremendous workforce participation deficit.”
But as he pointed out, this is a much more complex issue than the simple “unemployment rate” we read about each month. The workforce participation rate also factors in those who are retired, disabled or not in the workforce for some other reason.
To some extent, the entire national economy is suffering from the same problem. With the large number of baby boomer retirements and fewer women in the workforce than years ago, the national workforce participation rate has dropped from about 68 percent to about 62 percent over the past decade.
Sadly, the rate in West Virginia is significantly lower at about 54 percent. That, combined with job seekers who have not found employment, means the reality is less than half of the state’s adult population is going to work each day, Deskins noted. That simply means fewer dollars circulating in the Mountain State economy, which already has one of the lowest median household incomes in the country — $41,000 a year as compared to the national median of $53,000.
It also means a greater public burden for those who are working to help support those who are not.
But as the State Chamber discussion this week underscored, it is a complicated problem with no simple solutions. Beyond the national trends, the state also faces a higher percentage of older residents, poorer health, lower education and job-skill levels and higher disability rates — each factor with its own set of challenges.
However, it makes sense to start with making sure the able-bodied portion of the population is better prepared for today’s workplace with the education, skills and drive to get good jobs that are out there. As Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has stressed with his My State My Life program over the past year, thousands of good jobs are available in the state, but most require post-secondary degrees or training and good soft skills.
That will require more rigorous public education, stronger retraining efforts and convincing younger and older West Virginians that with hard work, the right skills and determination a better life is within their reach.