Efforts to train workers in West Virginia just got a big boost.
A coalition of West Virginia partners will draw down $62 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration funding along with another $26 million in matching funding from non-federal sources. Gov. Jim Justice’s administration also pledged $2 million.
All that money will go toward a variety of projects in coalfield communities across West Virginia, meant to ease economic struggles.
A big portion, $15 million, will focus on workplace development initiatives. That includes training programs, job placement support and retention support for employers and employees.
This comes in a state where the workforce participation rate, although improving, is still at just over 55 percent.
West Virginia officials have long expressed concern about the state’s workers developing the kind of skills that can match the demands of a modern economy.
In an announcement to award the money on Friday, Senator Joe Manchin told President Joe Biden that West Virginians have long felt left behind.
“My wonderful state and all the great workers and the people in my state that worked hard and are very proud, they’ve done the heavy lifting for years and years and years. And they never complained,” said Manchin, D-W.Va. “And as things started changing and transitioning, there was nothing left for them.”
Manchin said the money flowing to coalfields, including for job training and retention, will provide enormous benefits.
“My concern right now is, do we have the labor force?” Manchin said in front of a crowd that gathered in Charleston to celebrate what the money can do. “How do we educate? How do we recruit all of the West Virginians and people who have family and friends who want to come back to West Virginia? That’s what this is about.”
Generation West Virginia, a statewide nonprofit meant to support young people in the state, will spearhead the workforce development effort.
Partners in that effort include include Coalfield Development, The Alliance for the Economic Development of Southern WV, High Rocks, and WVU’s Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative.
“It’s no surprise that West Virginia has historically had the lowest workforce participation rate in the country, and the reasons why are complex reasons,” said Alex Weld, the executive director of Generation West Virginia, speaking at an announcement of the big grant. “That means solving this problem is complex too.”
Generation West Virginia already has a workforce development effort, and the influx of money will help that grow.
The program includes six-month intensive training to teach participants how to code and be software developers. The effort results in 100 percent placement into jobs averaging $47,000 a year, Weld said.
Mentors, who are paid, help those newly-trained participants navigate a professional work environment. That is meant to help support and retain workplace talent in the state.
Teaching coal miners to code is often a meme and punchline. But this program is actually set up to produce coders from coal communities.
“You talk to some of the trainees of our program and their lives have been transformed. This is much more than a meme to them. This is a pathway to be successful for them,” Weld said in an interview. “They’re helping to get incredible jobs because we’re helping build pathways for them.
“These might be people who, maybe their parents or grandparents were coal miners sometimes. We are still feeling the impact of the coal industry decline in West Virginia. So there are people now who are trying to figure out what now. The tech industry is thriving and growing, and we need to make sure West Virginians have access to those jobs.”
Additional support will be provided by Workforce West Virginia, Appalachia Connect, The Hive, Advantage Valley, the WV Office of Energy, and Mountwest Community College.
Overall, the initiative will serve a region of 21 counties in southern West Virginia, with additional benefits statewide.
The money is coming to the Appalachian Climate Technology coalition (ACT Now), led by Coalfield Development Corporation through revitalization grants.
The money comes from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan and is administered by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
“For decades, we’ve known the economy of southern West Virginia needs diversification,” said Brandon Dennison, chief executive of Coalfield Development.
“Some progress has been made on this goal, but not nearly enough. ACT Now constitutes a tangible opportunity to take a major leap forward in this generational challenge to become a vibrant, growing, diversified economy. In the wake of continued coal-job losses, nothing could be more important for our region.”