Unemployment numbers don’t tell whole story

September’s unemployment numbers in West Virginia were announced with the usual fanfare and backslapping, as officials were thrilled to announce unemployment is at 4.6% — below the national average and the lowest it has been in the Mountain State in 14 years.

Wonderful. Certainly efforts to reopen our economy and help businesses get back on their feet in the midst of a pandemic have something to do with that percentage.

“West Virginia is moving in the right direction in supporting employers and making sure we have good workers and good-paying jobs,” said Scott Adkins, acting commissioner of WorkForce West Virginia.

Perhaps. But there are troubling numbers obscured by all the hoopla. The state’s labor force participation rate is still the lowest in the country — a pitiful 55.2% as of August. That means 44.8% of the working-age population in our state … isn’t.

Traditional explanations for low labor force participation rates include those who have given up on seeking work, and aging workers. West Virginia has plenty of both. Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the reality that private employers who have found they can get the job done with fewer workers will not be chomping at the bit to increase the number of jobs available in the state any time soon. Those jobs are likely gone forever. Knowing that, we have to remember there is a portion of our work force that has moved elsewhere over the past couple of years.

We won’t get those folks back, or attract new workers, without a major attitude adjustment on the part of elected officials who believe the best way to keep themselves in office is to look to our economic past and appeal to fear and the worst instincts of just enough voters to win the race.

Yes, September’s unemployment numbers are good news. But to pretend the massive challenges faced by our state’s economy are being solved is a mistake. We still have a great deal of work to do.


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