According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, West Virginia’s unemployment rate in August was 4.6 percent.  That’s a low number, although context is important here.

The national unemployment rate in August was just 3.7 percent.  The 4.6 percent rate for West Virginia was still among the highest in the nation, with a ranking of 45th.

But the issue in West Virginia and many other states now is the shortage of workers.  Demand for qualified employees is outstripping supply, according to Tim Henderson of Pew Research.

“A labor shortage is jeopardizing economic expansion in almost every state, putting pressure on lawmakers to find ways to attract more residents and coax people who have dropped out of the workforce to rejoin it,” Henderson wrote in an article for Stateline.

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that in 39 states there are more jobs available than people looking for work.  That’s a significant shift from a decade ago, when in every state there were more people looking for work than jobs available

In 2009, figures show West Virginia had 4.2 people searching for work for every individual job available.  Today that figure is one to one… just one available worker for every open position.

Economic growth in West Virginia has contributed to the worker shortage. That’s the good news. But there are also systemic problems that make it harder for employers to find reliable help.

The WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research released figures at last week’s Economic Outlook conference in Charleston that show the state continues to have the lowest workforce participation rate in the country, at just 54 percent.  The national average is 63 percent.

Also, the state’s population is stagnant.  There are not enough people moving to West Virginia, while our young people continue to migrate elsewhere.

States are trying creative ways to attract more workers, such as more spending on skills training.  West Virginia is using that approach with West Virginia Invests. Under this new last-dollar-in grant program pushed through by Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), the state will help pay community and technical college tuition and fees.

Community and Technical College Education Chancellor Sarah Tucker said the schools are offering programs based on workforce needs in hopes of getting more people the training they need to enter the job market.

“There are jobs, and that’s what’s frustrating,” she said recently.  “What we need is to get people to fill those jobs.”

North Dakota is following a similar track.  That state approved a measure earlier this year sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Grueneich to fund more college level job training.

“It doesn’t matter where I go.  Everybody is crying the same thing: ‘We need more help,’” he told Stateline.  “We need electricians and plumbers and truck drivers. There’s a mindset that you need a master’s degree, but our people are getting those degrees and coming back and working the trades.”

West Virginia’s low unemployment rate is a good thing, but it’s not the whole story.  What our state needs is not an ever-declining jobless rate, but rather a better trained and available workforce for the jobs that exist in a growing economy.

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