President Donald Trump won West Virginia and other Appalachian states by promising to bring back the kinds of jobs that once provided a middle class lifestyle. Those jobs were in coal mines, steel mills, chemical plants and manufacturing plants. For a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the state’s steel industry collapsed, West Virginians’ average wages were actually above the national average. The largest private sector employer in the state was manufacturing, with 21 percent of the state’s workforce.
Today, that number is less than seven percent. West Virginians’ average wages and household income are well below national averages. And, from 1998 until last year, when it was eclipsed by WVU Medicine, Walmart was the state’s largest private employer.
What do all of these jobs – coal mining, steel production, retail – have in common? In large part, they do not require the kinds of education and skills required for the best jobs of the 21st century.
What else do they have in common? They are not coming back, despite what the president has promised.
The U.S. is experiencing a well-chronicled second industrial revolution. But, unlike the one that powered the developing world forward in the 18th and 19th centuries, this revolution asks much more of its labor. The previous leap was from farm to factory. It was pretty easy to take an illiterate farm boy, put him on a factory assembly line, and teach him how to put a nut on a bolt. As a consumer class was created and demand for that nut-and-bolt grew, the farm boy’s wages grew. By the mid-20th century, wages had grown sufficiently to put the farm boy’s descendants into the middle class. But the work was largely the same – not much more education was required of the assembly line worker.
Today’s industrial revolution, however, asks its labor to not only be literate, it must be literate in a second language: computer coding, and all the technical expertise and education that goes along with that.
But it is unfair to ask a population unequipped with the literacy of this century to leap into the knowledge economy. It must arrive there in steps.
That’s why President Trump, if he is serious about bringing jobs back to states like West Virginia that supported him, must do more than Twitter-extort random companies into adding a shift here and hiring 300 more workers there. He must launch and fund a multi-part, multi-year plan that addresses the immediate, mid-term and long-term problems that keep states such as West Virginia stuck in their cycle of economic misery.
When I read that J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” was returning to Ohio to advocate for public policy on opioid addiction and vocational training, I thought, “Yes, that’s almost right.” Here are three ways President Trump can bring back jobs to West Virginia that will stay and grow for multiple generations:
- 1. Treat the immediate problem – the opioid epidemic: Whatever the causes, this is now a public health crisis and must be dealt with as such. It’s destroying families and is a permanent drag on the state’s, and region’s, economy. Addiction forces an entire cohort of workers out of the labor force and onto disability, where 15 percent of all adult West Virginians reside, the nation’s highest rate. This has created a generational hole in the Appalachian workforce not dissimilar to the lost generation of young Englishmen killed in World War I. Addiction to anything is an illness and should be treated as such. The government has a role, but Trump can and should use his itchy Twitter finger to shame the Big Pharma makers of painkillers — which pumped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into West Virginia between 2007-12 – into paying for state-of-the-art addiction treatment facilities and commit to funding them long-term, not just writing a check and walking away after the ribbon-cutting. The economic cost of addiction to West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky alone—in lost wages, criminal justice expense and treatment cost – is nearly $3 billion per year.
- 2. Invest to fix the mid-term problem – lack of middle-skill workers and jobs: West Virginia is last in the nation in attainment of four-year college degrees. That’s okay. A four-year college degree – and the crushing debt—is not, and should not be, for everyone. But West Virginians don’t need a bachelor’s degree to jump into the middle class and stay. What they need is training for middle-skill jobs – jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree. These are jobs that range from medical lab tech to computer-controlled machine tool operator to electrician and represent huge growth in coming decades. The middle-skill job of web developer, openings for which are projected to grow by 12 percent between now and 2024, requires only a two-year associate’s degree and boasts a median salary of $64,970. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, middle-skill jobs account for 57 percent of West Virginia’s job market, but only 48 percent of potential state employees are trained to fill them. A model for such training in West Virginia may be the much-lauded dual-track vocational educational system in Germany, which places trainees in apprenticeships during their schooling for mid-skills jobs. This kind of intense apprenticeship would have to be complemented with aid for child care, transportation and the like; in other words, creating a system that would allow a single mother access to affordable child care so she could get an apprenticeship and learn a mid-skill job that could double her household income after two years.
- 3. Teach to solve the long-term problem – lack of knowledge workers: I am heartened when friends in West Virginia tell me their sons and daughters are learning to code and participating in coding clubs in middle school. It is not an overstatement to say that the ability to code is the 21st century’s literacy. Not every knowledge worker of coming generations will be a coder, of course, but coding is shorthand not only for STEM occupations, but for the tech-fluency required to succeed in any white-collar job in this century. It’s difficult for the current generation to make that leap even with an associate’s degree or apprenticeship program. But today’s children are digital natives and if they can learn computer language early enough, it won’t be like an adult trying to learn Chinese – an impossible second language. It will simply be more data for them to assimilate. For today’s schoolkids in West Virginia, coding should be the new algebra – required, and eminently more useful for the rest of their lives. But they need help. According to Code.org, only 16 high schools in West Virginia offer the AP computer science course.
West Virginia’s “blue-collar, lunch-pail” character is widely romanticized. WVU men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins tells his players of the value of relentlessly showing up for work every day, as employed West Virginians do.
There is inherent merit and even moral value in a workmanlike drive. But for too long in West Virginia, that ethos has been a touchstone of the past, a talisman held onto long after the jobs have gone and addiction’s grip throttled any dream of a way out.
Now, if President Trump wants to truly serve the people who put him in office – people like West Virginians – he will take steps to do more than just offer the panacea of a couple hundred new jobs and the false hope that things can go back to the way they used to be. He will engineer a ladder out of despair. And West Virginians can once again pack their lunch pail and head off to work– working this time not just for a paycheck, but for their future.
Frank Ahrens, a West Virginia native, is a public relations executive in Washington D.C. He was a Washington Post journalist for 18 years and is the author of “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.”