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Editorial: A more skilled workforce is key to a better economy

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 05:14 PM

Each year, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce brings together business leaders and politicians to talk about what can be done to improve the Mountain State's economy.

Changes in the state's tax structure and improving the business climate are perennial topics at the chamber's annual summit, and those surfaced again this week during the meetings at the Greenbrier Resort.

During a panel discussion, a leader in the chemical industry suggested that the state's corporate tax rate was the single biggest barrier to bringing more manufacturing to West Virginia. A consultant to the natural gas industry pegged "regulatory uncertainty" as the top impediment. Clearly, the state has work to do in both areas.

But as we celebrate Labor Day this Monday, it is worth noting that the education and readiness of the West Virginia workforce has emerged as a top concern as well.

"Everyone is going to check to see if we have a trained, reliable, expandable, drug-free workforce," Greg Babe, president and CEO of Liquid X Printed Metals Inc., said during one panel discussion last week. "This is an area of concern for everyone who considers coming here."

That not only means keeping students in school and raising the standards, but also making sure that graduates are developing the skills that will lead to real jobs. Educators at the summit pointed out that industry can make a big contribution in that area.

The West Virginia Department of Education is working to expand its new Simulated Workplace Initiative, which places career-center students with actual businesses to get hands-on experience and to see whether students are learning what they need to learn. The program currently has 21 projects and 3,000 students participating, but more business partners are needed, said Kathy D'Antoni, associate superintendent for the WVDOE.

"We need to have business and industry immersed in our education," D'Antoni emphasized.

But West Virginia also needs to do more to inspire and challenge its best and brightest, some panelists said. Many other states have moved ahead with specialized programs and elite high schools, such as Kentucky's The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Bowling Green, that nurture and challenge top high school students.

Developing that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) brain power is critical for the state, West Virginia University President Jim Clements told the chamber audience.

"I think it does come down to producing a talented pipeline," Clements said, along with more business partnerships in university research and more investment in technology infrastructure.

The potential is there for more and betters jobs in the Mountain State, but West Virginians will need the right education and training to fill them.

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