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Bringing West Virginians back home

THE Daily Mail reported last week that "for the third year in a row, United Van Lines has ranked West Virginia as one of the top states where people are moving out."

Census Bureau figures show that West Virginia's population declined by 2,376 from July 2012 through July of last year. Statistically, that's a drop of just one-tenth of one percent. It would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the larger trend.

The state's population has been dropping gradually since it peaked at just over two million people in 1950. Now, we hover at around 1.8 million, give or take a few thousand.

Additionally, West Virginia is getting grayer. The Census Bureau reports that by 2030, nearly one-third of the state's population (30 percent) will be 60 or older.

Now all this may be good for the wide-open spaces of the Mountain State, but it's bad for the economy.

"We have a vicious cycle here," said John Deskins, director of West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

"When the economy suffers, when young people don't see job opportunities in the state, they leave, and when the population starts to decline, markets are smaller for businesses. That makes them less inclined to move into the state," Deskins told me.

The result is a dearth of trained workers and a very low labor force participation rate. Companies are discouraged from opening or expanding here because they know the customer base isn't growing and it will be difficult to attract and keep a qualified work force.

North Dakota faced a similar problem a few years ago, but the trend has reversed because of a dramatic expansion of the oil and gas industries, as well as the growth in farming because of increased commodity prices.

Bakken Today reports that "Figures from 2005, the year the oil boom's effects became dramatically apparent, until 2011, show an increase in managerial, technical and professional job categories that typically go to college graduates."

As a result, more North Dakota college graduates are staying home and more graduates and trained workers from elsewhere are moving in. The state's population grew seven percent from 2000 to 2011 to nearly 700,000 people.

West Virginia does not have the oil reserves of North Dakota, but it does sit atop the giant Marcellus shale gas formation. So far, most of the new jobs are related to drilling. That may change, however, if petrochemical industries choose to locate here to take advantage of the cheap and plentiful gas supplies.

Last November, Gov. Tomblin announced plans by Odebrecht Company to develop a petrochemical complex along the Ohio River in Wood County. That could lead to thousands of good jobs that will attract professionals to our state, and keep more of our graduates at home.

If the natural gas related industries catch on, perhaps we can get some of those moving vans headed in the other direction.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, a state-wide broadcast by the Metronews Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays. Listen to the show locally on WCHS 580 AM. 


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