State will start New Year with fewer job openings
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.
"That's something individuals can do today without any help from the government, and that's clean up their act," Burdette said. "And if they clean up their act, the probability they can find a job is certainly going to increase."
Burdette also wants to make sure people know they need training that they may not have needed in the past.
"Part of the message we've got to deliver is that the jobs that are coming - or the jobs even that are here - require skills that they didn't require a decade ago," Burdette said.
His favorite example is a sawmill he visited that uses computers, not just saws.
Diane Strong-Treister, the president of the local Manpower temporary employment agency, suggests an attitude adjustment about technical schools.
Right now, 'Oh, why didn't they go to college?' is too often the reaction parents of technical school students receive, she said. She said technical schools sometimes can provide better preparation for jobs in West Virginia than some four-year degrees.
Strong-Treister also sees another problem: lack of motivation because of long-term unemployment benefits.
"If people are on unemployment, or they just started unemployment, they oftentimes will want to ride that out for a while," Strong-Treister said.
Burdette said he is looking to continue to attract new businesses to the state and to also help expand existing businesses within the state.