CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Woody Thrasher and Steve Paine, who work closely together as state Commerce Secretary and Superintendent of Schools, predict economic growth is imminent for West Virginia.
“I think you can unequivocally count on the fact that over the next couple of years there’s going to be a dramatic upswing in West Virginia’s economy. I’m confident of that,” Thrasher said.
“The key there is — the challenge is — you’ve got to make sure you’re training those kids for the positions that you think are going to be available. Otherwise, you won’t be able to continue to attract those companies.”
Several factors are expected to prime West Virginia’s economy, Thrasher said today while appearing on a panel with Paine at the annual Education Summit in Charleston.
Those include the road bond recently approved by state voters, the burgeoning oil and gas industry, a stabilized coal industry, a revitalized timber industry and several recently-announced development deals within the automotive industry.
“I think there’s going to be a substantial demand for our workforce going forward,” Thrasher said. “And I think in some areas we’re very effective and I think in other areas we could use a lot of assistance, work and improvement.”
All told, Thrasher said, 100,000 new jobs are possible over the next couple of years.
Of that number, 48,000 is direct and indirect employment believed possible through the millions of dollars West Virginia plans to invest in highways over several years.
“With that kind of job growth comes an immediate need to have the capacity to create enough jobs with those that are skilled enough to be productive to fill those jobs,” Paine said.
Paine said the Commerce department shares information about potential employers who may be attracted to the state, and the education system may react by tweaking its vocational training programs.
“He shares some of those general areas that they’re hot on the trail in terms of recruitment and we discuss what it would take for us to develop programs in rapid turnaround time,” Paine said.
Each touted the work of Kathy D’Antoni, assistant state superintendent over the Division of Technical and Adult Education. That division is largely responsible for workforce training efforts.
Workforce is one of the top three factors companies say they’re looking at when they are deciding where to put down roots, Thrasher said.
“Sometimes we’re very strong in that regard. Sometimes we’re weak in that regard,” Thrasher said. “It depends on the geographical location that’s being looked at and the skill sets required.”
Many of the manufacturing and construction jobs that are coming available are far more sophisticated than they used to be, Thrasher said.
“Even the fundamental construction and manufacturing jobs have a high degree of technical competency,” Thrasher said.
“I’ve gotta tell you, I think that’s a real problem going forward. I think there’s a huge gap between the people who are going to fill those positions and the people who are available. I think if we’re not careful we’re going to end up with a tremendous amount of our population base that has a very difficult time making a living.
“I’m not an educator but it seems to me we have got to get these kids with a good technical competency going forward.”
Not all of the jobs that Thrasher sees on the horizon may be filled by West Virginians, Thrasher said. So he predicts inbound migration.
“I don’t see any way in the world we can fill the number of positions that are going to be required,” Thrasher said. “I do think, however, that we don’t want to miss the opportunity to employ as many West Virginians as we possibly can.”
Paine said additional population would be a nice problem to have.
“We’ve been in declining enrollment mode,” Paine said. “There are lots of spaces we can still fill. We’d love to have more kids and more diversity.”
There’s also more the state can do to encourage natives to remain in West Virginia, both said.
“I think it’s having a job and having an opportunity,” Thrasher said. “The truth of the matter is, in the past there have not been enough jobs. I believe we can dramatically change that. I don’t think it’s necessary to be that way, and I don’t think it has to be that way in the future.
“When we go out and attract companies, workforce training is one of the top three items. Quality of life is one of the top three items. When you look at millennials, they’re going to live not where they can get a job. They’re going to live where they want. And then they’ll figure out how to make a living.”
Thrasher said West Virginia is already at work to change its own image. Commerce, Tourism and other agencies are currently working on that effort, he said.
“We’re going to talk about how not only should you not view West Virginia the way you probably view West Virginia now — but maybe more importantly is we should have a different perspective on who we are, be proud of where we are, recognize that we have a jewel of a place to live and really sort of change the mindset.”