Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, joined Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ashley Vickers, as well as a host of area business leaders, on Wednesday for the “HELP WANTED – What’s going on with the local labor market?” summit. The event was highlighted by a panel discussion moderated by Baldwin, and was held in the Underwood Building at the West Virginia State Fair in Fairlea.
“The last few years have been very hard on the labor market in the Greenbrier Valley, and realistically West Virginia as a whole,” Sen. Baldwin said. “So we wanted to get folks together tonight and talk through some ideas to try and change that landscape.”
Vickers, who was also a member of the panel, concurred with Baldwin, saying, “We put this summit together to address some of the problems our local businesses are experiencing within the labor market. We want to hear what challenges they’re facing, and get to a place where we can focus on possible solutions.”
Joining Vickers was Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB); George Chesebro from Almost Heaven Hot Tubs and Saunas; Scot Mitchell from the Robert C. Byrd Clinic; Ruthana Beezley from the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation; and Tony Juker from Del Sol restaurant.
Additional panelists included self-professed “serial entrepreneur” David Bostic; New River CTC President Dr. Bonny Copenhaver; Bonnie Swan and Joe Jarvis from Workforce West Virginia; Leslie Bicksler from WVSOM; City of Lewisburg Councilmember Valerie Pritt; Kevin Warfield from the Greenbrier East High School (GEHS) engineering department, accompanied by students Gabe Dowdy and Abigail Warfield.
According to panelist Joe Jarvis, “West Virginia has the lowest labor force participation rate in the nation at 54.7 percent.” He noted that transportation issues, lack of childcare, an aging population, health issues and substance abuse disorders are some factors that contribute to the state’s low employment numbers.
About 6,700 people in WorkForce West Virginia Region One, which includes 11 counties in southeast West Virginia, are actively seeking employment, he said.
Although thousands are currently seeking employment in southern West Virginia, Tony Juker said he isn’t receiving applications to fill open positions at his restaurant, which is located in vibrant downtown Lewisburg.
“When the government, state or federal, is giving you $10 or $12 an hour to stay home, what incentive do you have to go out and work?” Juker asked his fellow panelists. “That’s the aggravation that I have – I can’t find people to work.”
To help business owners like Juker find potential future employees, Greenbrier County CVB’s Kara Dense stated that a “Workforce Development Task Force,” has been created to help educate area students who may be interested in a career in the tourism industry.
“It’s hard to know what to do,” Dense explained. “But we believe that it begins even in middle schools. We have got to get the word out about the tourism industry to kids in sixth grade, seventh grade.”
“You can be successful in the tourism industry if you are willing to put the work into it,” Dense continued. “So, that’s what we as a task force are working on, is trying to start in the schools.”
GEHS Engineering Instructor Kevin Warfield believes the solution begins at the high school level. Warfield explained that “hands-on learning, listening to student’s desires, and reaching out to industry partners” can make a significant impact in developing the state’s future workforce. This is a belief that students Gabe Dowdy and Abigail Warfield share.
“After high school, I’m planning to go to college for a degree in mechanical engineering,” Abigail Warfield said. “We’ve already started working on that in Mr. Warfield’s class.”
Gabe Dowdy credits GEHS’s work-study program with helping him to develop a strong work ethic, saying, “Because of that, I was promoted to manager. I’m able to work more.”
Ruthana Beezley noted that simply educating local students is not enough, however; workers must also be recruited from out-of-state. Beezley added that “better infrastructure” may attract both employees and employers to West Virginia, a state that is losing population.
“A lot of people came here just to visit and they fell in love,” Beezley said. “So we have to work on the infrastructure.”
She explained that this includes housing, broadband, water and sewer, and all of the “building blocks” a community needs in order to thrive. Beezley further explained that when business owners ask about relocating to the state, they ask if utilities are present on site, and they inquire about the workforce.
“It’s a challenge,” Beezley noted. “It’s also a local problem that needs local solutions. We are in this to help figure this out. I don’t know what those (solutions) are, but certainly it’s an issue for businesses to expand and new businesses to come in if we don’t have the workers.”
She said the good news is that economic development is moving forward. Although it is moving slowly, Beezley believes the state is heading in the right direction.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Sen. Baldwin noted, “The bottom line is that businesses are struggling to find employees. In many instances, they don’t have enough staff to maintain their operating schedule. That’s every bit as frustrating for the business as it is for the customer.”
“There were a lot of great things discussed tonight,” Baldwin continued. “But one thing in particular that was mentioned was the need to entice more folks to come to West Virginia. The harsh reality is that we simply do not have enough people in our state to fill these jobs. We need to continue doing all we can to prepare the workforce we have now, but we also need to do a better job of growing it for the future.”
“We have to work together on this,” Baldwin concluded. “We all have to be part of the solution.”