FAIRMONT — West Virginia’s unofficial chief economist offers a mix of good and bad news for the economic outlook for North Central West Virginia.
In his research, John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, compared past economic performance with the condition of the region’s economy since the pandemic.
“We’ve seen collapses of similar magnitude, but we’ve never seen anything that fast,” Deskins said, addressing the Bridges Without Boundaries business summit held Tuesday at the Robert H. Mollohan Research Center in Fairmont. “We went from 5 percent unemployment to 16 percent unemployment over the course of two or three months. Totally, totally unprecedented in economic history. We’ve never seen anything that fast.
“Normally, economic recessions happen because of problems with the economy. But last year, the economy was moving along at least somewhat OK – and many people would argue fairly well at the beginning of last year – and then we have this economic recessions, and its origin isn’t in economics at all. Its origin is in public health,” Deskins said.
“It’s very hard for economists to wrap their heads around everything that happened last year because of these unique characteristics,” Deskins said.
Based on a 94 percent recovery, in terms of jobs regained as the population began to receive the vaccine, “the recovery has been fairly strong, and fairly quick,” Deskins said.
He said, the recovery has been stronger that he expected.
“So far, we’ve gained back 70,000 jobs,” Deskins said. “We have 24,000 jobs yet to go, but in my opinion, I’m interpreting this as the glass is half full.
“However,” Deskins said, “the recovery is not over with yet. We think it’s going to take until the middle or maybe even the third quarter of next year before we fully recover in terms of jobs. So we still have some ways to go.”
Deskins then turned to long-term economic challenges in West Virginia. He explained that the unemployment rate is based on the number of people who want jobs.
A different statistic, the labor force participation rate, identifies the percentage of the adults who want to work.
“All of the statistics I’ve shown before, I think, are important, but this I consider to be the most important statistic to characterize the West Virginia economy,” Deskins said. “West Virginia has the lowest rate, at 55 percent of adults want to work.”
“In West Virginia, if you look at these statistics, it’s clear that the problem isn’t unemployment as it’s measured. It’s the fact that we have 45 percent of our adult population that doesn’t want to work in the first place. And that percentage of the population that doesn’t want to work is the largest among the 50 states,” Deskins said.
The national figure is 62 percent, Deskins said, but that number is based on 2020 figures, which are lower than usual because of the pandemic. But West Virginia’s numbers have consistently run at about 55 percent, he said.
“There is no way we’ll ever be able to achieve economic prosperity that we hope for in West Virginia unless we can get that yellow bar to move to the right,” Deskins said.
There are three primary reasons why 45 percent of adults in West Virginia don’t want to work, Deskins said. And these factors should be the state’s and the region’s focus.
The first is education and training.
“The idea is pretty simple,” Deskins said. “You have people who would like to work in a perfect world, I think, but they, for whatever reason, haven’t achieved the education they need, the training they need, they don’t have the workforce powers they need to really succeed in the labor force. So they don’t even bother to look for work in the first place.
“One of our top priorities has to be better education, better training.
“The next factor is health,” Deskins said.
People living with diabetes, cancer, obesity, or other health problems, are reluctant to work because their health condition makes it nearly impossible. West Virginia ranks highest in the country for mortality rates.
The third major challenge is drug abuse. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the country.
Deskins admitted these challenges are daunting, but can be overcome if West Virginians give them the highest priority.
In terms of economic development, Deskins mentioned a few areas that may offer promise to North Central West Virginia. Some of those are chemicals and plastics manufacturing, aerospace material manufacturing, and rare earth elements processing.
Bridges Without Boundaries, has become an annual event for the four chambers of commerce from Harrison, Marion, Monongalia and Preston counties as a way to share information and learn about economic projections for the region. The summit is held in one of the four counties each year on a rotating basis.
“After holding the event virtually last year, we were thrilled with the participation and support from our members,” Marion County Chamber of Commerce President Tina Shaw said. “It’s wonderful to hear such positive comments about North Central West Virginia, and we are excited about the future growth.”
Other topics at this year’s summit included infrastructure, post-pandemic Appalachia, COVID’s silver lining, West Virginia’s redistricting, and the economic outlook for North Central West Virginia, as well as for the state and the country.