Senator focuses on math, science
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia needs to graduate more students in math and sciences to meet the demands of expanding firms like the Toyota plant in Putnam County, Sen. Jay Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., met with officials from Toyota and several other Japanese companies with operations in the state at Toyota's Buffalo plant Monday afternoon.
Rockefeller set up the meeting to find out how the companies were bouncing back one year after a tragic earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan last March.
He said company leaders expressed concerns that the United States wasn't graduating enough trained workers to meet their needs.
"What they want is people who are good at technology," Rockefeller said.
"We talked a lot about the need for more students to spend more time on science, technology, engineering and math," he said, "and the fact that so many of our schools just don't really offer that, and there's not an emphasis on what actually stands the best chance of getting somebody a job."
Rockefeller said the issue is critical to securing new and continued investment from expanding companies like Toyota.
Toyota Manufacturing announced an initial $400 million investment in Buffalo in 1996, creating 350 jobs.
The company has expanded the plant seven times since then. It now employs more than 1,200, bringing its total investment in West Virginia to $1.2 billion — the largest investment in the state in the last 50 years.
Earlier this month, the company announced an additional $45 million investment at the site. That investment should create an additional 80 jobs.
Rockefeller said he has met people who said they would have left the state to find work to support their families if Toyota hadn't moved to West Virginia.
"It's created opportunities and hope for so many families here in West Virginia," Rockefeller said.
Toyota has also been behind an influx of other Japanese investment in the state.
"It's in the Japanese tradition when a major company relocates to a new facility — in this case Buffalo — that a lot of their suppliers will follow them," Rockefeller said. "We now have at least 22 Japanese companies, including three in Wayne County."
Those companies include Diamond Electric, Nippon Thermostat, Green Metals, Okuno International, NGK, Hino Motors and Meiji Corp.
While last year's earthquake and tsunami cut off supply chains for Toyota and other companies, Rockefeller said local companies are recovering nicely.
"They said for the most part they were really coming back well on that," he said.
"The Japanese are very good at crisis," he said. "They're very fast adjusters and very resilient."
While they've overcome that hurdle, he said local companies are unsure if they're going to have a good supply of educated, highly skilled workers in the near future.
"From every one of them — they're worried about that," Rockefeller said.
He said it's going to take an intense focus on the state and federal level to make sure the country's supply of workers is meeting employers' demands.
"It's fine for somebody in my profession to talk jobs, jobs, jobs, but you've got to back that up," Rockefeller said.
While he said it would be up to state government to push science, technology, engineering and math education in local schools, he and others in Congress have set aside a lot of money for those programs.
Rockefeller mentioned the America COMPETES Act, which was passed in 2007 but has gone relatively unnoticed.
"Nobody's ever heard of that bill," he said.
In late 2010, he and a bipartisan group of senators pushed to reauthorize that act and devote $45 billion in education improvements over a three-year period.
"It's $45 billion for the training of teachers in science, technology, engineering and math, and then therefore an emphasis on education in those areas," Rockefeller said.
"That's what we need in this country — we need that," he said. "If kids do that, they can come out and have fantastic careers in terms of salaries, excitement and advancement."
Beyond education, Rockefeller also said Japanese corporate leaders were worried about the drug problem they've seen among the workforce.
He said state and federal leaders are going to take a tougher stand on drugs to make sure people are drug-free and can get a job.
"There's going to be a lot more firmness in this country — there needs to be — not just for manufacturing but for people who fly airplanes, or drive school buses or trucks," Rockefeller said.
"People think it's just a toy, drugs — it isn't," he said. "It's a killer and it's a job killer."
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.