Kercheval

By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- When it comes to high-tech jobs, West Virginia is on the low end.

A new report by the trade group AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association) says West Virginia had 14,343 people working in high-tech jobs in 2006. Nationwide, the survey found, 5.8 million people work in the technical industry.

That means just two-tenths of one percent of all the tech jobs in the country are in West Virginia.

True, West Virginia is a small state (1.8-million people), but even when you factor in population the state ranks near the bottom in high-tech jobs.

The six states that have fewer high tech jobs than West Virginia are Alaska (9,298), Hawaii(14,024), Montana (10,542), North Dakota (10,187), South Dakota (8,629) and Wyoming (4,596). But each of those states has a smaller population that West Virginia.

And there are more high-tech lowlights.

The 2007 State New Economy Index study ranked West Virginia 50th. The study found West Virginia was near or at the bottom in categories such as knowledge jobs, economic dynamism, digital economy and innovative capacity.

So, why are we so low on the high-tech scale?

I talked with several West Virginia economists who all start their explanations with something called "educational attainment." West Virginians, they say, don't get enough education.

Consider this: In 2000, 15 percent of West Virginia residents 25 and older had a BA or better level of education. The national average that year was 25 percent. Only Monongalia County, where WVU is located, had a share of residents with a BA or higher greater than the national average (32 percent).

West Virginia also has a "chicken or the egg" problem.

Dr. George Hammond at WVU's Bureau of Business and Economic Research says tech firms like to locate where there are skilled workers and skilled workers prefer to locate where there are high tech firms.

Tech firms and tech employees tend to cluster, meaning it's more likely for a location with existing technology parks and trained workers to expand and grow than it is for a new tech location to start up.

Can West Virginia move from the tech "have nots" to the "haves?"

Director Dr. Tom Witt of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research tells me that begins with attracting nationally and/or internationally recognized engineering and science faculty "whose research can lead to commercialized products and spin off firms."

Witt says some states have accomplished this by setting up matching grant funds that can be mixed with private dollars to pay for endowed chairs at the state's leading research institutions.

In the industrial economy, you have to be where the coal is to mine it.

In the new economy, location matters less. West Virginia has many assets: beautiful scenery, little crime, rock-bottom housing prices, abundant recreational opportunities.

But without the technically skilled workforce, West Virginia will continue to lag behind the rest of the nation.

Kercheval is vice president of operations for MetroNews and the host of Talkline, which has become a signature program of the network.

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