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This past year, West Virginia’s economic growth rate was ranked highest of any state in the country, thanks in part to an uptick of manufacturing across industries and the sustained growth of our natural gas industry.

As we approach national Manufacturing Day, these economic trends are encouraging news, with more opportunities on the horizon offering a promising, bright future for the Mountain State.

Recent developments including China Energy’s plans to invest $83 billion here, the construction of Shell’s ethane cracker in Pennsylvania that will be supplied with West Virginia-produced ethane, Proctor & Gamble’s investments to grow its Martinsburg facility and expansions of Hino and Toyota, further demonstrate West Virginia’s bright manufacturing outlook. And the opportunity for growth doesn’t end there.

Manufacturing jobs are good-paying career opportunities that contribute to strong communities and a thriving middle class, and each new manufacturing job creates four indirect jobs. West Virginia, in fact, has more than 1,100 manufacturers, employing nearly 50,000 West Virginians, with an average annual compensation of $65,653.

The manufacturing multiplier means that nearly a quarter million West Virginians are employed by manufacturers or in supporting industries.

As these manufacturing career opportunities grow, we face a challenge to close the skills gap and ensure our workforce can meet growing demand. A Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte skills gap study released in 2017 projects that out of the anticipated 3.4 million manufacturing jobs needed nationwide, 2 million will likely go unfilled. This deficit could limit the ability of the manufacturing sector to expand in the future and restrict the sector’s contribution to U.S. employment and economic growth.

Energy is an economic driver in West Virginia and natural gas has the potential to transform our economy and energize manufacturing, only if our state workforce is capable.

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To move our state forward, we must ensure that there are qualified, local workers for these good-paying middle and high skilled manufacturing careers. That’s why the West Virginia Manufacturers Association is partnering with Chevron, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Catalyst Connection to significantly expand our education efforts in middle schools across the state.

The WVMA Education Fund, Inc. inspires and motivates middle school students to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math) through its Explore the New Manufacturing Program. By partnering with WVMA members, both students and teachers gain a greater awareness of manufacturing careers and academic preparation that they require.

Starting this month, groups of 100-150 middle school students will participate in Explore Academies — programs at area community colleges and career & technical schools around West Virginia, learning about manufacturing through hands-on activities with company partners, including P&G, Eagle Manufacturing, and Covestro, to name a few.

Successful experiences like these can foster an early interest in manufacturing, encouraging these students to pursue related careers later in life.

In engaging current middle school students, the W.Va. Manufacturers Education Fund is tackling a future problem — 10 years from now, today’s curious students interacting with local welding and engineering companies will be young adults equipped with the skills needed to fill a growing demand.

By focusing on STEM and introducing middle schoolers to manufacturing early, the West Virginia manufacturers, with the support of Chevron and the Benedum Foundation, are committed to ensuring the availability of skilled workers to meet the current needs of our existing manufacturing base and to fill the thousands of potential new jobs that manufacturing, and the energy industry will produce in years to come.

Rebecca McPhail is president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.

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