The arrival of Summer in West Virginia typically means an increase in available jobs for warm weather industries such as construction and hospitality. However, employers in those fields, as well as businesses in many other sectors of the state’s economy, cannot find workers to fill positions.
“We continue to hear that it is nearly impossible to find a workforce,” said West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts. “This spans restaurants and hospitality to mining, construction and manufacturing.”
West Virginia is essentially at full employment. The state’s unemployment rate continues at record low levels, just 3.6 percent at the end of April. Workforce West Virginia reports total employment was at 766,200 in April, the highest since 2008.
Workforce figures show total unemployment reached an all-time low in April at just 28,400. However, there were more than 55,000 job openings. That means the state has 1.6 job openings for every unemployed West Virginian.
The conditions have given workers more options and leverage in the market. “It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that anyone who wants to work can find employment,” Roberts said.
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, said many of her members are implementing signing bonuses and raising wages to fill positions. “Starting wages continue to increase anywhere from three to 18 percent,” she said.
West Virginia is not alone.
The U.S. Labor Department reported Wednesday that there were 11.4 million job openings in April. That is a slight decrease from the month before (11.9 million), but close to record levels. “Demand for workers has exceeded the number of unemployed people looking for work for the past year,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “During that same stretch, employers have added more than 400,000 jobs a month.”
Of course, there are obstacles to employment, especially in West Virginia. Some workers lack the skills necessary for the jobs available, even though employers are increasingly willing to train workers. Individuals may not have reliable transportation or childcare.
Roberts acknowledges those challenges but adds that “benefits have made it attractive for some people to permanently leave the workforce.” He also contends that, “We have somehow missed teaching work values and skills in our schools” and that “jumbled and inconsistent immigration laws and regulations” make it difficult to fill jobs with immigrants.
One of the primary elements necessary for economic growth is the availability of a trained and reliable workforce. This is a serious headwind for the state’s economy since we are near full employment already and the state’s population is stagnant.
The state’s economy is growing—tax collections and full employment reflect that. However, future expansion of existing businesses and the attraction of new industries will be limited by the inability to fill job openings.