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As West Virginia promotes economic development, top WVU economist calls for a focus on workforce

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Statehouse Spotlight newsletter published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get coverage of the legislative session delivered to your email inbox Monday – Thursday; sign up for the free newsletter at mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter.

By P.R. Lockhart, Mountain State Spotlight

As West Virginia officials continue to tout high-profile business deals from companies like Nucor, Form Energy and LG, one of the state’s top economists told lawmakers that building up a workforce capable of taking these new jobs must also become a priority. 

Hours before the start of the legislative session on Wednesday, lawmakers received their annual update on the state’s economic outlook from John Deskins, an economist at West Virginia University who is often called by the Legislature to speak about the state’s economy. 

In the presentation, Deskins outlined what can be done to change West Virginia’s last-in-the-nation labor force participation rate, which currently sits at 55%. The state has struggled for decades to raise this number, which is used to track how many people are actively working or are looking for work. The national labor force participation rate is closer to 63%. 

“There’s no way that we can have economic prosperity on par with the nation with that statistic,” Deskins said. 

In recent years, state lawmakers have allocated millions of dollars of economic development deals with employers to encourage them to move here. Just last week, officials announced a $54 million incentive for LG to bring 275 highly-skilled tech jobs to West Virginia.

But Deskins said that raising the participation rate will require the state investing in “human capital” — improving the conditions that affect a person’s interest in and ability to work — to get more people in the workforce. 

This means addressing the basic needs of West Virginians, from improving the state’s education system to providing job skills training. 

Deskins also highlighted the importance of improving access to child care, a topic that received some attention from lawmakers during legislative interim sessions, though legislators so far have disagreed on the exact way the state should address child care access and affordability. 

 “Across the board we need more investment, we need to continue to try to fix those problems,” Deskins said in an interview after the presentation, noting that there needs to be more attention on education, health and job preparation. “We’re never going to get where we want to be unless we improve those areas.” 

Reach P.R. Lockhart at pr@mountainstatespotlight.org.

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