Investing in the future of West Virginia

One of West Virginia’s most pressing issues is its low work force participation rate, which is the measurement of those in our state who are above the age of 16 and are either employed or are actively seeking employment. Sadly, with only 53 percent of West Virginians employed or actively seeking employment, we have the lowest work force participation rate in the nation.

Among the root causes of this problem is that we have a population that, in large part, doesn’t have the skills or training to be able to meet the demands of the growing career fields throughout West Virginia. By next year, 65 percent of all jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education. So, what can we do as a state to help remedy this major issue?

The Senate recently unanimously passed Senate Bill 1, which aims to squarely address this issue. To have the trained work force we will need to fuel the growth of our state’s economy, we must ensure all West Virginians have access to educational opportunities they will need to succeed.

That’s the catalyst for this bill’s “last dollar in” program. Our state’s community and technical colleges have consistently been leaders in adapting to the state’s changing economic climate and workforce needs that arise from those changes. Because of their reduced size and more centralized, local focus, they can react quickly to the needs of a new industry.

A great example here in the Northern Panhandle is West Virginia Northern Community College. In the past decade, Northern has responded to the work force needs of the Marcellus and Utica shale development by establishing programs in petroleum technology, welding, advanced manufacturing, chemical operator, cybertechnology and mine maintenance technology. The petroleum technology and welding programs became a reality through the assistance of employers in the oil and gas industry. With an increased demand for trained, skilled workers, the college purchased and renovated a former industrial building to upgrade and expand these programs, which provides even more opportunity for training.

That responsiveness is precisely why SB 1 chose to focus on students who want to attend a community or technical college to earn a degree or training certification. This program is not an entitlement or a handout. To benefit from this program, a student who applies to one of these institutions first must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Once all other financial aid — public and private — is determined, the state will provide, at an average of $700 per student, “the last dollar” necessary to cover their tuition.

This money, however, isn’t just a handout. It comes with certain conditions. Throughout their time in school, the student must maintain a 2.0 grade-point avereage. They also must pass at least one drug test per semester. And last, but most importantly, they must continue to live in West Virginia for a minimum of two years after they graduate, or they are required to pay back the financial assistance they received through the program. That important part of this legislation will serve as the incentive for these recent graduates to stay here and work here. For a state that lost approximately 11,000 of its people to other states just last year, it’s vitally important we do all we can to provide the incentive people need to stay here.

SB 1 also helps those who already may be in the work force but feel trapped in low-wage jobs because of their lack of education or training. It’s also aimed at recent high school graduates who are not the type of students to pursue a four-year college or university but want to learn a trade that will help them succeed.

By removing the financial barriers to educational opportunities, we are opening doors for an entirely new generation of students. No longer will “I don’t think I can afford school” prevent someone from attending community or technical college to build a brighter future that will include better pay, better benefits and better stability that in return will help us all create a better West Virginia.

To grow, we must invest, and that is exactly what SB 1 is: It is an investment in the people of our state who want to be more and want to create their own opportunities for their future. By investing in them now, we will benefit from the dividends later.

(Weld, R-Brooke, represents the 1st Senatorial District and serves as the Senate majority whip and the vice chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is also an attorney in the Wheeling office of the firm of Spilman, Thomas & Battle.)