CHARLESTON – As we think about job creation in the new year, we note that private sector employment in West Virginia increased during 2017. Increases in employment can be attributed to growth in mining and logging, construction, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality. Combined, these important sectors provided 8,100 new jobs for West Virginia workers.
And just as impressive, the state’s Gross Domestic Product growth is among the highest in the nation for the second half of 2017.
Improvements to our business climate made by the West Virginia Legislature over the last three years have gone a long way to create more opportunity. Our state will need to create more jobs in 2018.
When the Legislature convenes in January, there are immediate actions that should be taken to continue economic growth and job creation. By addressing issues that relate to education, government efficiency, excessive regulation, addiction and taxation, the road to prosperity can be enhanced tremendously.
Legislators should revisit Senate Bill 619, the Regulatory Reform Act, to ensure that state agencies are auditing completely the numerous regulations they have on the books. We must continue to protect our environment, but allowing outdated and over-burdensome regulations to remain in place slows economic development and job creation.
Our Legislature also should pass a statewide online judicial case management system. We are well into the 21st Century, and the inability to access important court documents online makes us out-of-step with almost every other state in the nation.
Legislators should examine the state’s system of taxation and address the areas that make West Virginia an outlier. Our state is one of only a handful of states that taxes inventory. This places manufacturers and our growing natural gas industry at a distinct disadvantage, because they are unable to keep necessary resources onsite without being subject to taxes not found in adjacent states.
Our Legislators should strive to ensure the services provided by state government are cost effective and efficient. Government plays an important role in our citizens’ lives, but it also must be a good steward of hard-earned tax dollars.
The Legislature must adequately fund our state’s development office so that development-ready sites can be prepared. Our commerce secretary and his staff are excellent and need more resources to help our state grow.
Several of these actions can be accomplished quickly in the early days of the Legislative Session, but more difficult and essential tasks remain. Every day, I hear from employers who share that two of the biggest challenges they face are the ability to find employees who have the appropriate skill set and who can pass a drug test. This must change if our state is to realize its potential.
Improvements to K-12 education are imperative. According to U.S. News & World Report, West Virginia’s very best public high school is only ranked #1,492 among all schools in the country. This is unacceptable. Our children deserve better. We must realize they are the talent-pipeline and will soon lead our state. We must let our teachers do what they do best – teach. We must recognize students are individuals with different aspirations and needs and some will be better served with career and technical training rather than college.
There are jobs available in the construction, natural gas, manufacturing, and mining industries, but too few of our citizens have the necessary job training to fill them. As the Baby Boomer generation begins to retire, skilled jobs will be in high demand. A serious conversation about providing free community and technical education is a must. The Promise Scholarship is outstanding at covering tuition for four-year colleges, but it cannot be used by those who prefer a career that requires technical education.
All West Virginians should be focused on the opioid drug epidemic that is crippling our state. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. All of us know someone who is struggling with addiction. We must seek solutions to help break the cycle of addiction and find ways to help individuals re-enter the job market once they have recovered. West Virginia’s employer community understands this problem and is eager to assist in finding solutions to our state’s opioid drug epidemic.
Job growth was positive in 2017. Now, we must look forward and address additional critical issues—if we wish to see strong economic development and job creation in 2018.
As Novelist C.S. Lewis said, “There are far, far better things ahead than what we leave behind.”
West Virginia deserves it. West Virginians need it.
Roberts is president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.