Education, training part of work participation problem

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Education, training part of work participation problem
Editorial, The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, WV

West Virginia is not the only state seeing a decline in work-force participation.

The percentage of men and women with a job has been gradually sliding across the country since the mid-1990s.

Unfortunately, the Mountain State just has ended up in the worst spot, with the lowest workforce participation rate in the country. Among all adults, only about 49 percent of West Virginians are working, according to the Bureau of Labor. That compares with 62 percent nationally.

If you pull out those of retirement age and just look at what researchers call “prime age” workers, about 70 percent of West Virginians ages 25 to 54 are in the workforce - again the lowest rate in the country. The national average is 78 percent.

Our first reaction might be to view the problem as one of “demand” - not enough employers looking to hire. But new research by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., has concluded that the drop in participation is just as much a “supply” side issue, characterized by too many workers who lack the skills to find a place in today’s job market.

Researchers Isabel Sawhill and Eleanor Krause wrote about the national trend and not about West Virginia specifically in their report, but a common scenario they offer hits pretty close to home.

“A man might initially lose a good-paying manufacturing job to outsourcing or automation, then search for a new position while collecting unemployment insurance, and find nothing he deems acceptable,” they write. “He might be averse to taking a job as a home health aide, seeing it as ‘women’s work,’ or he might be unwilling to take a large pay cut. Perhaps he then becomes discouraged or depressed, may even turn to drugs or alcohol, and finally applies for SSDI (disability) based on a history of arthritis or a bad back.”

Certainly, there are many other obstacles for displaced workers finding a new job - lack of mobility and poor health, for example. But too often a fundamental issue is a lack of marketable skills.

Fewer people working not only means fewer dollars circulating in the local economy but also less taxes to support communities and social programs the growing non-working segment requires.
Some economists even link lower workforce participation to social trends such as declining marriage rates. It is a troubling slide no matter how you look at it.

For our state and our region, the message seems clear that bringing back mining jobs and creating new jobs will help. But really getting West Virginia back to work is going to require a real investment in education and training for workers of all ages.