WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — West Virginia has a good problem to have, but a problem regardless: With new businesses coming to the state and major proposed construction projects on the horizon, will there be enough workers to fill the needed jobs.
“My biggest concern is will we have the labor force to provide the demand that people want and what we can do. That’s what we have to be able to do,” said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to a ballroom at the Greenbrier Resort on Thursday for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 86th Annual Meeting and Business Summit.
“We’re going to have to recruit a lot of workers into the State of West Virginia,” Manchin continued. “We don’t have them, and we can’t produce them from within. We’re going to have to go out and get them. This is the place where they should be coming.”
“The things I hear almost all the time are inflationary worries, supply chain worries, and workforce worries are rampant throughout the state and the country,” said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., later that same day at the business summit.
Just this week alone, Seattle-based electric boat manufacturer Pure Watercraft announced it would create a facility in Brooke County to build electric pontoon boats and create 100 jobs. California-based Sparkz announced it would build an electric battery plant in Taylor County near Bridgeport and create 350 jobs.
Site work continues with North Carolina-based steel manufacturer Nucor. The company is building an electric arc furnace steel mill in Mason County. When construction begins in earnest at the end of the year or early 2023, it will need 200 jobs to start and as many as 2,000 jobs during the peak construction period. Nucor announced the new plant in January.
And state officials are working to win approval from the U.S. Department of Energy for a regional hydrogen hub to create blue hydrogen derived from the state’s plentiful natural gas supplies and utilize carbon capture and sequestration to pump the created greenhouse gases underground. If approved, the massive project would employ thousands of construction workers over a period of years.
“I’m very optimistic about the construction industry in West Virginia,” said Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades in West Virginia. “There’s a lot of money that’s going to go into hard infrastructure that’s much needed and overdue. There’ll be a lot of your typical roads and bridges, pipelines, et cetera, but there’s even more. There are some big opportunities, like the hydrogen hub, carbon sequestration, which could lead to gas-fired power plants.
“These are big job creators and there’s a great opportunity for our state, but the opportunity doesn’t mean it’s going to happen,” White continued. “We really need our leaders to focus in and land these big opportunities for our local residents.”
According to the West Virginia Economic Outlook for 2022-2026, published by the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, the state is expected to see modest growth in construction jobs over the next couple of years.
The authors of the report cite several highways construction projects, such as the $210 million I-70 bridge repair and replacement program in Ohio County. The authors also cite several federal projects funded through the C.A.R.E.S. Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“… Growth will be stronger during the first half of the five-year forecast horizon thanks to increased federal and state infrastructure spending and healthy demand for new homes,” the report stated.
The report’s authors see improved potential for new jobs in the manufacturing and energy sectors, especially from downstream industries that would benefit from increased natural gas production.
“… Other factors bode well for manufacturing activity going forward and offer significant upside potential,” the report stated. “For example, the energy sector is expected to rebound over the near term and should engender a boost in payrolls and business activity for machinery, fabricated metals and various other manufacturers as coal, natural gas and NGL production increase over the next couple of years.”
West Virginia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for July was 3.7%, up from a historic low of 3.5% in May but still very low, meaning those looking for work are finding jobs. But according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, West Virginia still has the worst labor force participation rate in the nation at 55.2%.
That’s up from a pandemic low of 52.7% in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, but still down from 56.2% in May 2009 as the nation was slipping into the Great Recession caused by the housing market collapse. The labor force participation rate measures how many people are employed or looking for work versus those who have dropped out of the workforce entirely.
Another factor that could affect the number of workers needed for current and future projects is competition for those jobs from other states. The Associated Press reported in August that construction projects in Ohio, including for a semiconductor manufacturing plant for Intel which could employ more than 3,000 people by 2025.
“Labor leaders and state officials acknowledge there’s not currently a pool of 7,000 extra workers in central Ohio, where other current projects include a 28-story Hilton near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion addition to The Ohio State University’s medical center, and a $365 million Amgen bio-manufacturing plant not far from the Intel plant,” the article stated.
WORKING IT OUT
Brian Dayton is the vice president of policy and advocacy for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Speaking Thursday after the business summit’s morning sessions, Dayton said the workforce issues are foremost on the minds of small businesses and major manufacturers alike.
“It is something that absolutely has to be addressed,” Dayton said. “We are facing a worker shortage here, but it’s not just in West Virginia. It’s nationwide. It’s really ramping up the pressure to make sure that we are giving good training to our workers.”
West Virginia has tried to work on these issues over the last few years. The West Virginia Invests grant program created by the Legislature in 2019 is a last-dollar-in program that covers the cost of high-demand associate degree programs once all federal grants and scholarship aid is exhausted.
A blue ribbon task force created by Gov. Jim Justice last year issued recommendations in February for a single portal for residents to sign up for services, including job training, consolidating job training services across state agencies, and incentives for employers to work with state agencies to find them the needed workers and train them. In June, Justice appointed a workforce resilience officer to implement the task force’s recommendations.
“Everybody is coming together,” Dayton said. “We are recognizing that we do have challenges, but people are working very hard to address that and make sure we are training workers to take the jobs that will be available. These are good-paying jobs that are coming in … these are going to be great opportunities, but we need to be making sure the workers are there.”
One group left out of the governor’s workforce planning are union workers. For example, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 667 has a statewide apprenticeship program located in Winfield in the shadow of the John Amos Power Plant. Boilermakers work on a variety of projects, from power plant infrastructure to chemical plants, from petroleum to nuclear power.
In a tour of the apprenticeship facility last week, White said the boilermakers apprenticeship program is paid for by union members and is tuition-free, providing a mix of classroom instruction, hands-on training, and on-the-job training supervised by experienced journeymen.
White said he would like to see the trade unions brought into the workforce conversation, including creating partnerships between trade school programs in high schools and allowing union members to have their apprenticeship training count towards credits at a two-year community and technical college. White said the trades are having the same problems with getting workers into their apprenticeship programs.
“I am totally confident we can supply the workforce that is needed,” White said. “We have the best training facilities, the infrastructure, the instructors, the bricks and mortar. We just don’t have enough apprentices. We could take more in if we had more jobs to put them on. The key is the jobs to put the apprentices on. We could be taking unemployed and underemployed people, giving them great skills, and getting a great paycheck. That opportunity is before us.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.