CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Top business and labor officials in the state said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to start work-force education in middle school is exactly what's needed to advance job growth.
West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said Tomblin is "exactly right" to push for earlier work-force education, as the governor talked about during his State of the State address Wednesday.
The governor, who said, "if you get high, you won't get hired," also introduced a new website for people who want help with substance abuse.
The Mountain State has the lowest workforce participation rate in the country, Roberts said.
"Our West Virginia economy has not started creating jobs yet, but in order to attract ... the new employers that our economy needs to attract, we're going to [need] a better educated and skilled workforce," Roberts said. "We have a lot of children in West Virginia who aren't sure they can be anything."
Change must begin with the youngest children, Tomblin said in his speech. A child who can't read by the third grade will remain a poor reader in high school and is more likely to drop out, he said.
Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said the sooner the state starts talking to students about jobs, the more interested they will be.
"I think we need to start working on them when they're 3 or 4 years old," Perdue said. "The earlier we start talking to kids, the earlier we start building their confidence up, letting them know there are opportunities out there and then the better off they are."
Self-confidence lets them advance in the work force and "you can't buy that," Perdue said.
Tomblin said the state has the nation's highest percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds who are not in school or in the work force, which "is not acceptable," he said.
"If our schools prepare students for college and a career, every graduate will be ready to go to work in West Virginia," Tomblin said during his speech.
Roberts said providing students with the necessary tools at an earlier age would encourage them, by middle school, to figure out what they want to do as an adult.
In order for students to understand their opportunities, Tomblin said every student in West Virginia should have access to counseling from community and technical college staff.
Perdue said he supports Tomblin's counselor proposal, as it's vital that students know about the opportunities and options available to them.
"I would bet you that 75 percent of the students in our state need someone to talk to and to give them some direction and hope. That person could be a qualified [career] counselor," Perdue said.
Roberts said Tomblin is right to include every school in the state, as some children fall through the cracks.
"The challenge is it really differs in various parts of West Virginia, not just county by county but school by school," Roberts said. "I'm more and more convinced that there is a way to do this. It's not one size fits all, but that every child has got to be taught by a caring teacher who both knows the subject content and level of energy to do the job."
Tomblin honored both Roberts and Perdue in his speech Wednesday for their support for a drug-free work force in the state.
The governor announced the website www.FaceYourFuture.com
to help residents who need and want help with substance abuse.
Numerous employers could talk about trying to hire people who can't pass a drug test or refuse to take one, Roberts said.
"I think the governor is taking us in the right direction to talk about employees who have drug or alcohol problems," Roberts said. "We're not going to fix it until we acknowledge it. We as a state and as a country have really failed to figure out that this is not just criminal activity, it's a combination of a cultural shift."
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