Industry still needs to be encouraged

The economy moves in cycles.

The types of jobs which might be prevalent at one point in our history will disappear, to be replaced with something else. Sometimes those older jobs, or something similar to them, make a comeback.

It’s something we are starting to see here in the Ohio Valley, where we’ve watched as the steel industry, once our area’s largest employer, has diminished. We now have more service and retail-based occupations. That might be changing again, though, as we see more of a focus on the natural gas industry in the region.

The problem is, according to area officials, while jobs are expected to be on their way, we don’t necessarily have the people available to fill them. Many of those who have the necessary training have either moved away, following the departing jobs, or have reached retirement age.

The other problem, as pointed out during a seminar held last week by West Virginia Northern Community College and the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce, is that our younger workers aren’t going into these more manual jobs.

Instead of learning skills to get into a particular trade, they are instead looking at some form of college.

It’s an idea I saw first-hand growing up. My father worked at Weirton Steel. Both of my grandfathers worked at Weirton Steel. Two of my great-grandfathers worked there. I saw the dedication and hard work it took to be in that mill, and the toll it took. I also was told, numerous times, to not even think about following that path. My family wanted me to go to college, to find something different for myself.

It was the same story for many of my peers, and it has continued in the more than 20 years since.

The youth of today never knew the height of our local steel industry. They haven’t seen opportunities in many of those labor-intensive job paths here in the Ohio Valley. So, they pick another way, go off to college and, many times, don’t come back.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves a gap when potential new employers begin to look at the Ohio Valley with an interest in a workforce with a particular set of skills. That means trying to attract people from other areas of the country to work jobs being created here. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps to increase our area’s population. More people usually means more money being spent with area businesses.

At some point though, some of those workers may decide to leave, which means we still need people with the training necessary for these new industries. That’s why our local school systems and community colleges have been putting more of a focus on some of the fields of study involved, such as welding, mechanical repair, etc.

It’s a difficult balance to achieve, especially not knowing what the future will hold for our area. The key is to let the students of today know there are options which will be available. A four-year college might not be the right fit for some. Not everyone is going to be a lawyer or a doctor.

It’s still OK to learn the skills necessary to work on a manufacturing line or to be on a natural gas wellpad, or to weld an oil pipeline. These are jobs that are still needed in our world, whether it be here, in the Dakotas or along the Gulf Coast.

They might not necessarily be the industries we are used to seeing, but they will help to keep the Ohio Valley, and this nation, going.

(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)