Friday, February 4, 2011

Leaders May Promise Jobs, But Not Workers

A West Virginia election is a lot like the game of musical chairs. There is a great fanfare of trumpets. Then, all of the incumbent politicians who have been sitting on folding chairs jump up and run around in circles until the tooting stops. Occasionally, a chair will be removed from the dance floor, and one politician will have to go home or take a politically appointed job.

In our last election — the one for the open U. S. Senate seat — no chairs were removed, and every politician involved ended up in a different chair. Once everyone was seated, the “sitants” thanked the voters for voting and then joined together to sing a chorus of “We must create jobs.”

Let’s be positive for a moment. Let’s give the new senator, the new acting governor and the new legislative leaders the benefit of the doubt. Let’s ignore history and assume that West Virginia politicians can actually create jobs.

The thought has occurred to me that if 10,000 private sector jobs were created, there might not be anyone here to fill them. The reason is due to the demographics of our state’s population. West Virginia’s population has several negatives that could thwart an attempt to create even a modest 10,000 jobs.

The state’s population peaked in 1950 and has never recovered. West Virginia went from six congressional districts in the 1950s to the present three after the 1990 census. These three lost seats in the House of Representatives (and the influence their seniority might bring) could very well make the difference in keeping the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency from shutting down the state’s coal and electric power industries.

Influence in the nation’s capital does correlate to a state’s economy. West Virginia is more likely to lose another House seat in the foreseeable future than gain one.

West Virginia’s population has the third-highest median age — 40.6 reported in 2008. Even more telling is that the state ranked second in its share of population older than 65 at 15.6 percent. For the most part, people over 62 are considered out of the work force in any survey measuring the available workers for new business start-ups. Even though the 62-plus crowd (19.2 percent of the state’s population) tends to be dependable and productive, the fact remains that they are the most expensive employees to hire.

On the other end of the age curve, people aged 21 and younger (25.3 percent of the state’s population) are considered to have little or no meaningful work experience. When added to the over-62 population segment, some 45 percent of West Virginia’s population is not considered available for hire.

The 2000 census reported that 14.8 percent of West Virginia residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher as compared to the national average of 24.4 percent. The Lumina Foundation for Education recently reported that West Virginia has the fewest college graduates among working adults (ages 25-64). Even more depressing is the 54 percent of working adults with a high school degree.

The 2000 census reported that 22.5 percent of West Virginians were disabled as compared to a national average of 16.4 percent.

For 2009, West Virginia’s obesity rate has been estimated at 31.7 percent, the third highest in the nation. Obesity correlates to the overall healthiness of the work force.

West Virginia revamped its jails and maximum-security prison during the past 20 years. These facilities have been overcrowded for some time. Given the newness of our jail system and given how fast it overfilled paints an unflattering picture of the state’s 25-64 age group, the most likely people to be locked up. The experts predict a need to almost double the regional jail cells in the coming decade.

The last demographic worth considering is substance abuse among people aged 25 to 50, the prime work force. No single statistic adequately reflects the extent of drug abuse and alcoholism in West Virginia. But the numbers that we can find point to high rates of addiction. For example, there are nine for-profit methadone clinics in the state.

When the recession began in 2008, the state’s unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, or 29,800 unemployed. Assuming the recession ends and the state unemployment rate returns to the 4 percent level, it would be next to impossible to find workers to fill 10,000 new jobs.

I will give the politicians credit where credit is due for creating jobs in a recession. Total state and local government employment increased from 122,900 to 129,700 (17.34 percent of the non-farm work force) during 2010.

Just what we needed — another 6,800 government employees.