CHARLESTON — The state’s 86th Legislature has a unique opportunity to improve the state’s workforce participation rate by investing in those who will always call West Virginia home, according to the Reverend Matthew J. Watts, who testified at the Senate Labor Committee meeting on Friday.
“You, the lawmakers, have the opportunity to change the trajectory of the state of West Virginia,” Watts said, later adding, “You have the power of the stock market.”
He explained that as a result of the pandemic, more than $5 billion in federal funds flowed into the state and that in addition to federal funding, the state also achieved a record surplus.
Watts said it’s up to lawmakers to decide how that money should be invested, but he believes at least $300 million should now be directed to communities struggling with deep poverty.
“This money should be invested strategically in projects that improve housing, health, labor, coordination of economic and social services,” Watts said. “If we don’t, we’re not going to build the communities where these people live.”
During his testimony, Watts said he was no stranger when it came to helping state residents achieve a better future. He is pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston, has the longest tenure on the state’s Workforce Development Board, and he founded the Hope Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization designed to empower those who live in the west side of Charleston.
He said through his work, he identified eight factors that lead to the state’s low labor force participation rate — currently the lowest in the nation at 55%, while the national average sits at 62%.
These eight factors include: the state’s older workforce, high rate of unhealthy residents (including those with disabilities and those impacted by the opioid epidemic), high migration to the outside, the high number of those who have been convicted of a crime (about 125,000 – 150,000), the low rates of women and minorities in the labor force, the crisis in secondary education, the impact of juvenile justice system and low rates of residents entering tertiary school.
While Watts said investing financially in communities is one way to help improve future workforce outcomes, he also offered other ideas for consideration by the Legislative Assembly.
“A bill should be passed so that no child can graduate from high school without a career plan,” Watts suggested. “How are we going to fund to send someone to school for 14 years and then graduate from high school and have no idea what they’re going to do the next day? But that’s what we do. There is no requirement for a child to have a career plan when they graduate from high school.
He also suggested that the state expand summer job programs and develop a pilot program to improve job training opportunities for at-risk youth who have either dropped out of school or aged out of an institution for minors, or aged outside the foster family.
“There are somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 young people disconnected from school – who do not work”, Watts noted. “Twenty-three percent of them have already procreated, and guess who pays for them? We need to target this population with specific targets – trying to reconnect them to the education system through WorkforceWV’s one stop center system – to have these children reconnected, reassessed based on where they are to see if we can enroll them in a program to get a GED or high school equivalency and provide them with a type of vocational training that can lead to a job.
Finally, he said the state should focus on college students to stay in West Virginia after graduation.
“Let’s create a strong internship program for all those kids who are in HSTA, Promise Scholars, Upward Bound students. Let’s try to connect them with employers over the summer for summer internships so they can build brand loyalty and hopefully when they graduate from college the company will have the first opportunity to recruit them.
Watts said he commends the work of legislators through certain bills, such as the Senate’s third-grade pass bill and a similar 2003 House bill, which, if passed, would place assistant teachers in K-3 grades to help improve student achievement, but he says that’s not enough. He said the state needs more certified reading teachers and lawmakers should also focus on students who have already passed 3rd grade.
“Here is the problem, we have 250,000 children in the public school system in the state of West Virginia. 225,000 of them have already passed the fourth year. Only 25% of them read at school level. What are we going to do for them? Watts asked.
He added that a plan must be put in place to help all children.
“We have become a transfer portal” Watts said of the state. “A lot of our finest and brightest want to get out of here. They go to Morgantown and don’t unpack their suitcases. They go to Marshall’s and don’t unpack their suitcases. They leave. We must do more to make them stay.
“We have to cultivate our own” Watts continued. “We have to develop the people who want to be here and the people who are going to be here. We have to invest in them, because they have nowhere to go. They don’t need it in Detroit to assemble cars. They don’t need them in Pittsburgh to work on the steel. Our people aren’t needed anywhere if they don’t have skills.
Additionally, during the committee meeting, Jeff Green, Deputy Executive Director of WorkforceWV, gave a presentation on how his organization helps state residents find jobs.
Green said while the state’s labor force participation rate averages 55 percent, there is a wide range of labor force participation rates from county to county. another, with Monongalia having the highest labor force participation rate at 69% and Mingo County with the lowest at 31.9%.
Currently, most new unemployment rate claims come from the construction industry, which is not unusual during the winter, Green said.
“We are up about 700 from the number of claims submitted in November,” Green said, adding that while the unemployment rate has “checked” therefore, there is nothing to worry about.
He also explained that in September, WorkforceWV contracted with Premier Virtual to create an online system to host virtual job fairs twice a month.
“A total of 786 job seekers took part in these meetings and 488 employers took part”, Green noted. “Through this process, 2,261 jobs have been posted to this online forum.”
In addition, he said case managers are starting to work with some unemployed people to create a “individual employment plan” and identify barriers they may encounter in obtaining employment.
He also said initiatives are underway to help fill state positions, such as those available through the Highways Division, and to help incarcerated people find jobs.
In response to a question from committee chair Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, about initiatives being used to help employ older, possibly retired residents, Green said he was working with the Bureau of Senior Services. .
Senator Roberts added that he would like to hear more about opportunities for the senior population and would like to hear more at an upcoming committee meeting.
“I think we have a tremendous amount of opportunity there that we lack people with knowledge and a work ethic and an interest in staying engaged in life and not just getting out of society, so to speak,” Roberts said.