WEST VIRGINIA’S employment numbers have risen thanks to more coal, natural gas and construction projects, but young people say they need more diverse career options in order to stay in the state.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest report on employment and unemployment data, West Virginia has experienced steady increases in employment in construction, manufacturing and trade. But employment gains in business, education and finance have remained stagnant, and the lack of career diversity is one reason why the state’s population is dropping.
Spenser Wempe, 26, was born in Shepherdstown, attended West Virginia University, represented the state in 2011 as Miss West Virginia and has the state’s motto, “Montani Semper Liberi” (“Mountaineers Are Always Free”) tattooed on her arm. Still, she left for Washington, D.C., earlier this year, a move she says was “more of a necessity than a desire.”
“The industries that have thrived in the state are not necessarily the ones I find myself in,” said Wempe, who works as the communications director for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a nonprofit that supports infrastructure projects in rural communities across the U.S. “I think if we want to see long-term success for the state of West Virginia that really means diversification.”
West Virginia has experienced steady declines in population since 2012. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual estimate of the resident population in 2017 was 1,815,857 — almost 40,000 fewer people than five years earlier. The number of residents age 18 to 24 declined from 171,866 in 2012 to 158,605 in 2017, the census data show – a 7.9 percent drop.
Dr. Unk Christiadi, a research associate with West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research noted a few counties in the Eastern panhandle — such as Berkeley, Jefferson, Morgan and Hampshire — have witnessed population increases because residents are moving there and commuting to the Washington, D.C. area for work. But the rest of the state is still experiencing a decline.
“In 2017 about 80 percent of the counties saw a decline in population.” Christiadi said. “For some counties the population decline has been going on for a while.”
Overall, a majority of West Virginia’s 55 counties are losing a significant number of residents, but Kanawha County, where the state’s capital is located, saw the one of the most significant declines. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Kanawha County lost 1.5 percent of its population between 2016 and 2017.
In order to lure more young residents, the state is turning to the technology sector.
Generation West Virginia, an organization dedicated to attracting and retaining young residents, is launching a new program in January, called NewForce, to train young people and connect them to software employment opportunities in the state. NewForce has received nearly 200 applications for the first cohort of 18 students.
“Software development is becoming a critical skill set for jobs in all most every field,” Natalie Roper, executive director of Generation West Virginia, said. “We feel it’s really important to make sure that West Virginians have access to a pathway to take advantage of these new fields.”
West Virginia State Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, said the addition of information technology jobs in the state would attract more businesses and help retain young West Virginians who want employment outside the energy sector.
“Our kids are graduating from high school and college and they have to leave and go elsewhere because we don’t have anything for them. There’s no jobs here,” Ojeda said. “I want to bring IT capability. We need broadband.”
Christine Wharton, 61, grew up in Wheeling. Currently a human resource specialist for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, she moved to Eagan, Minnesota for seven years for her former husband’s job, but returned to the Mountain State to be with her family. Wharton said policymakers need to understand that focusing on the steel and coal industry isn’t enough – a more diversified economy is the answer both to keeping young people in the state and lowering the unemployment rate.
“I know people that would just rather be unemployed than to move away because they love it so much here,” Wharton said.
But for some, West Virginia’s lack of diversity goes beyond job opportunities.
Hilary Kinney, 23, was born and raised in Moundsville and graduated from West Virginia University in 2017. After graduation, she worked in Morgantown for Inspire U.S., an organization that focuses on registering young people to vote. She recently moved to Philadelphia, as the organization’s regional manager, and says she won’t come back to West Virginia until the politics in the state reflect a more progressive attitude.
“I’m not going to raise my kids in a state that doesn’t prioritize things like education, health and jobs,” Kinney said.
Jonathan Hensel, 26, of Morgantown, graduated from West Virginia University with a Master of Science in industrial relations and human resources, but he has had difficulty finding a job that matches his degree.
For now, he is a unit clerk at Ruby Memorial Hospital, but his ideal job is in the business and human resources sector. Although he does not want to leave West Virginia, he said the lack of opportunities may force him to seek employment in Pennsylvania.
“I would love to stick round here as much as possible for work and life. It’s just, it’s home,” Hensel said. “I haven’t really had a whole lot of a desire to leave it.”