CHARLESTON, W.Va. — About half of West Virginians say the economy is stagnant.
That’s according to the most recent Dominion Post MetroNews West Virginia Poll.
Asked whether West Virginia’s economy is getting better, worse or staying the same, 49 percent said staying the same.
Thirty percent said it’s getting worse. And 21 percent said it’s better.
“There is more optimism nationally, for the economy, than there is for West Virginia,” said pollster Rex Repass, “particularly in light of so much positive news the governor has been talking about on the economy and job growth and No. 1 in GDP growth.
“That’s all well and good, but the voters do not necessarily know that or feel that.”
Gov. Jim Justice has often touted improvements to West Virginia’s economy.
“It’s doing better now than it’s ever done in the history of the state,” Justice said last month while talking about the economy during a barnstorming tour of cable news shows.
He was referring to West Virginia’s nation-leading growth in gross domestic product for the first quarter of 2019.
West Virginia’s change for that economic indicator from the last few months of 2018 to the first few months of 2019 was 5.2 percent.
West Virginia also led the nation in personal income growth for the first quarter of 2019, with a 5.6 percent growth rate.
West Virginia has seen some other economic improvements recently, too.
Overall employment is at 756,400, the highest it’s been in about a decade.
The unemployment rate in July was 4.7 percent, the lowest in years. But it’s still higher than the national average, 3.7 percent.
The economic bright spots might not be penetrating West Virginians’ views of the state economy, Repass suggested.
He noted that some parts of the state — particularly the gas-rich counties of north central West Virginia and the growing Eastern Panhandle — have the best economic performance.
“I think it’s a feel that people have living in their own communities. I believe it’s more likely that ‘I don’t feel that in my community,'” Repass said.
“Part of this is the message not resonating. People aren’t hearing about the growth or they’re not seeing enough about that, but more importantly it’s about people living in their communities and what they see and feel in their own life.”
There are enough economic improvements to start feeling better, said Brian Dayton, spokesman for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which advocates for business.
“We’re definitely seeing a big bump from the policy changes weve seen in West Virginia,” he said.
“The growth we’ve seen in this last year, it’s starting to become more widespread and hit different sectors. We’re starting to see some diversification.”
He acknowledged, though, that some areas of the state aren’t sharing the growth.
“There are a lot of areas of the state where the growth hasn’t hit yet,” he said. “But we are hopeful that we will continue to see development and hopefully people start to feel it a little bit more.”
The West Virginia Poll was conducted between August 14-22 with a sample of 501 registered voters. The overall confidence interval for the survey is +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
It was conducted by Research America Inc., where Repass is president.
The West Virginia Poll also asked respondents to assess barriers to economic development in West Virginia.
Hiring workers who can pass a drug test was considered a major barrier for 59 percent of respondents.
Similarly, finding qualified workers was considered a major barrier by 45 percent of respondents.
Two related choices were seen as major barriers by 39 percent of respondents.
Those were “getting workers to show up at their place of employment” and “finding workers who are educated and have training.”
Finally, only 22 percent called environmental regulations a major barrier. Almost half — 46 percent — said environmental compliance is a small barrier.
“It’s other things that are creating at least perceived barriers among voters,” Repass said.
Workforce development — particularly a drug-free workforce — is seen as the biggest issue.
“Whether it’s related to the opioid crisis or not, it’s the ability to identify workers who can meet training requirements, have the work ethic and can pass a drug test,” Repass said.
West Virginia should continue focusing policies that help people gain technical skills, Repass suggested.
“It also speaks to the challenge the state has for improving the education system and other job training activities that don’t require a four-year degree,” he said. “The electrician who can make a good living.
The qualified workforce becomes a cyclical issue, said Brian Lego, economic forecaster with West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
“Businesses don’t want to come because they don’t have the supply of workers that they need,” Lego said.
“Then opportunities don’t arise for people to move up the economic ladder because the businesses aren’t there so they move out.”