There has been much said about the shortage of workers in the post-pandemic period. Unfortunately, this might not be universally true, or a permanent sign that full recovery is around the corner.
The first reason pertains to a likely resurgence of COVID-19 through the delta variant. Dr. Clay Marsh, at West Virginia University, already has expressed concern for those not vaccinated, which covers nearly half the population of West Virginia. The new variant spreads rapidly and is deadly. Even those already vaccinated likely will need booster shots by winter, as well.
The second reason pertains to the fact that many lost jobs are being permanently eliminated. The pandemic created an opportunity for many businesses to change their employment configurations.
As noted by Brad Hershbein, senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, “when demand falls, it’s a natural time to re-tool or invest because you won’t lose customers or sales while you tinker and shut things down.”
The result will cause a major transfer to digital technology, ranging from production to personal services at all levels.
Current tax code also highly favors the write-off of investments in capital expenditures, thereby indicating the surge in labor-intensive job openings will be short-lived and might be relegated to part-time work that will not provide a sustainable, livable existence.
The effects will be major for workers in West Virginia who will have to be retrained for skills needed in new careers. Previously, this occurred for miners as a result of the 1950 Mechanization Agreement between the United Mine Workers union and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, which caused a major population exodus and cost a congressional seat. But then, conditions were different because of blue-collar opportunities elsewhere.
The problem is more serious today. Many of those here who will be displaced by the new technology and job configurations do not have the educational background to adapt, thereby necessitating a major need for retraining programs, coupled with educational attainment for new professional careers. This also will be a problem for incumbent workers vying to advance in their careers or from part-time employment.
Equally troublesome are “training repayment agreements,” in which workers might initially grab any job available at the immediate moment but are forced to pay back employers for the cost of job training if they are fired or quit — thereby relegating them to subsistence low-wage servitude.
One proposed program that has come into focus is a special project of the Southern Appalachian Labor School. It is a program that would create a new lifeline for displaced coal miners who would obtain GEDs (if needed), be enrolled in an associate degree technical program, receive professional construction competency certifications and construct rehabilitated housing in coal camp communities, as well as the proposed infrastructure projects envisioned by Congress.
The proposal, endorsed by members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, UMW President Cecil Roberts and many others in the economic development community, is pending approval by various agencies that are focused on creative recovery initiatives and worker transition in the coalfields.
There is a desperate need for something basic and innovative to be done. As noted by reporter Phil Kabler in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, CNBC summarized in its 2021 report, “America’s Top States for Business,” that “West Virginia offers low costs, but poor education and a lack of innovation leaves it in a deep hole.” It also noted that West Virginia ranks near the bottom for technology and innovation, access to capital and education.
Clearly the program proposed by the Southern Appalachian Labor School is a breath of fresh air that combines workforce transitions, housing and community development into a viable economic transformation that is needed for a new tomorrow in West Virginia.