Unemployment rate keeps getting better, but labor force participation is another story

Even with a historically low unemployment rate, West Virginia is trying to encourage more workers to fill available jobs.

The state’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate hit 3.7 percent last week. The unemployment rate reflects people actively searching for work. Those who have stopped looking cease to be counted.

At that rate, West Virginia has surpassed what economists widely consider to be full employment, meaning a minimal number of workers involuntarily unemployed.

But West Virginia’ continues to struggle with a separate economic measure, the labor force participation rate.

That rate, which measures the total number of employed plus those looking for work up against the state’s overall population, has been rising somewhat but is still about 55 percent for West Virginia. Nationally, the labor force participation rate is 62.4 percent.

Scott Adkins

“Employers are desperate, driving wages up,” said Scott Adkins, the leader of Workforce West Virginia, the state agency handling employment issues. “We just have to get folks off the couch and get them into a job.”

West Virginia had 50,000 job postings as of this past January, Adkins said.

“There’s plenty of jobs out there,” he said. “We hear it. We see signs in every community as you travel throughout West Virginia.”

Jobs remain plentiful in hospitality, recreation and state government, Adkins said, speaking today at a briefing. “We have difficulty even within state government in recruiting and retaining state workers,” he said.

Adkins said 30 percent of graduating seniors do not have a career plan, “meaning they’re not going to higher ed, they’re not going to community and technical school, they don’t have a job, they’re not joining the military.

“So we have to, as a workforce development system, work extremely hard and work smart to get those 16- to 24-year-olds, 30 percent of those high school seniors graduating, into a solid career plan.”

Brian Lego

West Virginia’s workforce participation rate has been troubled for decades, said Brian Lego, economic forecaster at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“If you have a large percentage of those in your eligible workforce not participating in that capacity then you’re going to be left on the sidelines for companies that need to find eligible employees to expand their businesses or for prospective companies to come in and locate in your area,” he said. “So it’s going to be a hindrance.”

He noted that people have a variety of reasons for not participating in the workforce. Some might be stay-at-home parents, some might be in school, and others might be retired.

“It’s the other factors contributing to our low labor force participation rate that can create the problems,” Lego said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”


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