In 2015, the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy published its eighth annual report on the state’s economy. The report focused on West Virginia’s labor force participation rate (LFPR), the lowest in the nation — where it has ranked since 1976. Using a regression analysis, the Center isolated several factors that are drivers of the low rate. One of the most important was inadequate education.
West Virginia’s educational attainment rate is also one of the lowest in the nation. Only 21% of the state’s prime working-age population (25-54) has a four-year college degree, compared to the national average of 31%. In this same age category, 42% have only a high school education, the highest rate in the country. But when the LFPR statistics are parsed, it is clear how critical education is. Those West Virginians with a college degree have a higher LFPR than the national average, ranking the state 14th highest.
It does not take a rocket scientist to make the connection. More working West Virginians mean a more prosperous economy, more secure and stable families, and much more. A more educated West Virginia means more of our fellow citizens will be working.
One prime vehicle for accomplishing this is our community and technical colleges. These colleges offer two-year Associate Degree programs and technical certificates. Both of these programs enable students to qualify for stable, high-paying jobs that are available in the area. Community and technical colleges work closely with area employers to learn what skills are needed for available jobs and then design the specific training programs that provide them.
There are nine colleges and twenty-seven campuses in the West Virginia system. Two of the colleges – Blue Ridge CTC and Eastern West Virginia CTC – are in the Eastern Panhandle. With over six thousand enrolled students, Blue Ridge CTC is the third largest institution of higher education in the state after WVU and Marshall.
The system is led by Chancellor Sarah Tucker and administered by a Council for Community and Technical College Education consisting of educators and business leaders. Businessman Butch Pennington of Martinsburg serves on the Council.
The two Eastern Panhandle CTCs are leading the way. For example, Proctor & Gamble’s huge new factory in Berkeley County will ultimately hire as many as 700 employees. Blue Ridge CTC has a program now to train prospective P&G employees in Robotics, Machine Operation and other technical skills. Eastern CTC in Moorefield offers Associate degrees and Certificates in Wind Energy Turbine Technology to serve the operators of 199 wind turbines in the surrounding six-county area.
In fact, Community & Technical Colleges are an essential part of any effort to recruit new manufacturing and high tech business to the state. These businesses all assess the availability of well-trained, capable employees before making a commitment to locate here. By 2020, it is estimated that 65 percent of all American jobs will require some form of post-secondary degree or credential. Economic development officials depend on community and technical colleges to prepare more students to fill these jobs.
Our Community & Technical College system is by no means perfect. The system was recently criticized by legislative auditors for not holding individual institutions accountable for failing to meet annual goals. But according to the Council, over the last six years the college degree attainment rate has increased by 3%. Each one percentage point increase represents 10,000 West Virginians who have graduated from college and chosen to remain in the state of West Virginia upon graduation.
The Community & Technical College system is now facing severe budget cuts. But these colleges appear to be just what West Virginia needs to develop students into productive employees in good-paying jobs outside our “boom and bust” energy industry.