Attracting new jobs to West Virginia
Those of us who have jobs can be grateful for them. Too many of our neighbors, friends and family members have not benefited yet from the upswing in the national economy, however.
Here in the Northern Panhandle, things remain tough for a larger segment of the population than you might imagine from reading state and national reports on employment. Though the state unemployment rate was just 4.6 percent in July, only one of our six counties (Ohio, at 3.9 percent) was below that.
In fact, two of our counties, Tyler (at 7.3 percent unemployment) and Wetzel (6.5 percent) were among West Virginia’s 10 worst in terms of joblessness.
Yet our area is the very center of the natural gas and oil drilling boom in West Virginia. Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties are among the top energy producers in the state. Why on earth don’t more people in our area have jobs?
We all know the answer. Much of the workforce involved in producing gas and oil and laying pipelines for it is from outside our state. Even when local residents can land energy industry jobs, they often are only temporary.
The really big, long-lasting benefit of the energy boom is in “downstream” industries that use gas and its components to manufacture other products, including plastic.
Here in the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio, there is reason for optimism that an ethane cracker plant will be constructed in Belmont County. Eventually, that could lead to other new industries providing many good, permanent jobs.
Last week, Gov. Jim Justice announced formation of a new task force intended to find ways to maximize the number of jobs the petrochemical industry brings to West Virginia.
Other states have precisely the same hope, however. To compete with them, West Virginia will have to be able to offer more than just accessibility to natural gas and an eager workforce.
Our ability to offer financial incentives is limited, of course. But the new task force should make it a priority to explore just how West Virginia can be most competitive in terms of financial attractions for petrochemical plants. A plan in that regard ought to be in place by the time state legislators convene for their annual regular session in January.
The window of opportunity in attracting petrochemical industries to our state may not be open for long. State officials need to be ready.