A definitive guidepost for our future

A couple of weeks ago, area business leaders gathered for a presentation which could assist in better planning for the future of the Upper Ohio Valley.

Approximately 50 individuals were in attendance to hear from a group representing West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics. While we often hear local officials speaking to the improvements being made in our region to encourage development and job growth, it was good to hear many of those same words coming from someone with no attachment to the Northern Panhandle.

John Deskins and his students — Garrett Cathell, Sarah Alway and William Wagstaff — indicated inroads have been made and much of West Virginia, including the Ohio Valley, have started to see some positive trends in economic growth.

They noted the Weirton area has seen limits to natural gas activity, but what has been taking place in the surrounding area still benefits us, with new businesses locating here and people moving to the area to work in those jobs.

At the same time, manufacturing only accounts for approximately 14 percent of employment in our area. The top spot, at 22 percent, goes to the education and health services areas, with trade, transportation and utilities close behind at 21 percent. Government accounts for 15 percent of jobs, with leisure and hospitality at 12 percent. The remainder is divided among areas such as professional business services, construction, financial activities, information, natural resources and mining and “other.”

In other words, approximately 72 percent of our jobs are focused on only four categories of jobs. That may be a good thing for those particular sectors, as it means growth opportunities, but it’s not necessarily good for us.

That’s one of the reasons the WVU group emphasized the need for diversification in our job market. It’s something I’ve noted at various times in this column and many of our current leaders have suggested as well. We’re not going to be doing anything if we keep all of our eggs in only one or two baskets. We need to be able to gather a few more categories of jobs, or to find ways to make those other business sectors grow.

We’ve seen a few small steps in the tourism and hospitality industry, for example, but certainly more can be done to attract visitors to the region.

Another issue pointed out is the breakdown of our population. As of 2017, only 19 percent of the Weirton area’s population was under the age of 18. Almost 22 percent was at least 65 years of age.

In addition, focusing on education, the WVU group noted 42.2 percent of our population went no higher than high school. Approximately 31 percent had some sort of higher education, but only 16.6 percent reported having completed at least a bachelor’s degree.

In today’s business world, no matter what job you may have the employer is going to expect you to have some training or education. Whether it is a four-year college, a two-year associate degree or completion of some technical or trade school program, there needs to be an emphasis on continuing our education.

That’s why the recent announcements by West Virginia Northern Community College, along with groups such as the BDC and Project BEST, are so important for our region. These programs will provide training and certification opportunities in welding, construction and other trades where it is expected we will be seeing growth in employment in the coming years.

Now, these reports won’t predict exactly where we are heading, but it does give us some focus on ways to build up our area.

We know there are efforts to regrow our industrial and manufacturing sectors. As those areas grow, more jobs will be available and, eventually, population trends will reverse.

It will still take many years, but we at least have a better idea of where we need to start.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)