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Tough Questions

Labor force participation rate lowest in W.Va.

Our state’s economy has “a lot of uncertainty,” West Virginia University economist John Deskins noted during an economic outlook conference this week in Charleston.

Deskins, director of WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, explained that, among other things, the uncertainty relates to coal and natural gas jobs.

But one thing about West Virginia’s economy has been certain for decades: Our labor force participation rate will be among the lowest, often the worst, in the nation.

At last count, only 54.9% of West Virginians were employed. No other state comes close; No. 2 is Mississippi, at 55.8%. The national rate is 63.2%.

If there is any good news, it is that labor force participation rate has been increasing steadily since February 2015 — but, again, we remain the worst in the United States. The highest rate, incidentally, is in the District of Columbia, where the taxpayer-funded federal government is responsible for a 71.1% number.

“We can never achieve the prosperity we want if we have a labor force participation rate that is nine points below the nation, that is dead last,” Deskins commented.

How, though, can the rate be improved?

“The mantra that there are not jobs in West Virginia is not true … What we need is to get people to fill those jobs,” said state higher education Chancellor Sarah Armstrong Tucker during the event. She added that not enough people take advantage of job training and retraining programs.

In addition to having the lowest labor force participation rate, West Virginia has the lowest education attainment level in the nation. Obviously, that makes it more difficult for people to get jobs — and our state less appealing to job creators.

If Tucker is correct, and there is no reason to doubt her, a substantial number of West Virginians are not taking advantage of opportunities to improve their lives. Why?

State legislators should ask that question and another: What can they do about the situation?