The email to me from “Krista” was short and to the point: “(I) enjoy listening to your show from Northern Virginia. I grew up in WV, but am among the many Mountaineers who left the state because Northern Virginia provides greater economic opportunity. I love the Mountain State and visit Morgantown frequently. However, West Virginia does not offer professional options for myself and my husband in our chosen fields.”
I’ve heard the story so many times over the years; West Virginia expatriates who still have their heart in the Mountain State, but have moved elsewhere for the opportunities. It’s probably good that we cannot quantify the extent of the brain drain because it would be extremely depressing.
The Census Bureau has released new figures showing our population continues to decline. We lost about 10,000 people between July 2015 and June 2016. Over the last four years the state’s population has dropped by 25,000 people, to just over 1.8 million. The state’s population peaked at two million in 1950, but has been generally trending downward ever since.
Some people, like Krista, move away while others simply die off as our population ages. WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research Director Dr. John Deskins says the demographics present yet another challenge to the state’s economy.
“If you want businesses to locate in West Virginia to create jobs, create income, create prosperity, those businesses have to be confident they can find the workers that they need,” Deskins told me on Talkline Wednesday. “If we have an area with a declining population and with an aging population to boot, then it’s just harder and harder for them to find the workers they need.”
This economic chicken-or-the-egg is a difficult cycle to break; businesses are slow to expand or locate here because they don’t have a satisfactory employee pool or a growing customer base, and young people leave the state or don’t move here because there are not enough job opportunities.
However, Deskins cautions that the population numbers are more nuanced. Some parts of the state—the eastern panhandle, north central West Virginia, the I-64 corridor—are growing. “We have a couple of regions that are very strong and healthy. We have several regions that are stable, and we have one region (a portion of southern West Virginia) that is in a great depression,” Deskins said.
He believes West Virginia should “cultivate the pockets of prosperity” to generate even more economic and population growth in those areas that will benefit the state and entice more people to move to those locations.
Still, it’s a hard slog. West Virginia is one of just three states—Illinois and Vermont are the others—that are losing population. Young people are more mobile and willing to change jobs more frequently than previous generations. As much as some of West Virginia’s best and brightest would like to stay home, they just cannot ignore the better opportunities elsewhere.
Just ask Krista.