CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Heading into the New Year, West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said the state's shrinking labor force is the economy's "biggest challenge."
While West Virginia's unemployment rate has remained below the national average for years, there are fewer jobs in the state now than this time last year, according to national employment data.
There were about 14,000 fewer people on the payroll in the state in November 2012 than in November 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That drop, of 1.8 percent, represents the largest percentage decrease in employment in the country, the bureau said in a report released just before Christmas.
Most of those losses happened in mining and logging, government, manufacturing and the trade, transportation and utilities sectors.
During the same 12-month period, the state's unemployment rate decreased from 7.8 percent to 7.3 in November 2012. But that widely reported figure can actually hide economic trouble. That's because the unemployment rate only counts people actively seeking employment. It does not account for people who have stopped looking for work.
"Of the folks that are actively seeking employment, our unemployment numbers are going down; but, at the same time, our workforce has shrunk," Burdette said.
The state fared somewhat well during the depths of the recession because the energy sector allowed the state to add jobs. Burdette said high natural gas prices helped drive the production of cheaper coal in the state - but then gas prices fell and so now the coal industry is hurting.
"It kind of carried us through the worst of the worst, but now it is kind of balancing it out," Burdette said.
Burdette also sees a workforce that is older; rural areas that do not get new employment opportunities; jobless people who are too poorly trained for openings; and applicants that too often fail mandatory drug tests.
"The participation in the workforce is a big problem," Burdette said.
Companies are having trouble filling jobs that require drug tests. Burdette said that is one thing people can fix on their own.