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Region's many assets crucial in shifting economy

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

The Great Recession that started in 2007 caused the U.S. economy to shed nearly 7.5 million jobs. Since then, companies' will to do as much or more with less and to employ advancing technology to do what people formerly did has played a huge role in what many have described as a jobless recovery.

The recovery actually hasn't been a totally jobless one, because 3.5 million jobs have been added in the three-and-a-half years since the recession ended. But for those who can't find a job, that's little consolation. And for many who do find employment, they are faced with accepting jobs that don't pay nearly the salary or wages they received before the financial crisis hit more than five years ago.

That mostly gloomy picture was spelled out last week in a special report by The Associated Press and a story by The Herald-Dispatch reporter Jean Tarbett Hardiman. It told how about half of the jobs lost during the recession paid middle-class wages or salaries ranging from $38,000 to $68,000 a year. Of the smaller number of jobs added since the recession ended, only about 30 percent fall into that category. West Virginia hasn't been immune. For example, it has lost 10,600 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, jobs that pay an average of more than $50,000 a year, according to Workforce West Virginia.

The shift toward more automation has consequences for the state's economy, people trying to navigate the job market, educators and economic developers. With fewer people working and many of them making less money, the retail spending so important to the economy is taking a hit. For job-seekers, learning special skills that use technology -- rather than being replaced by it -- will be crucial. Educators will have to adapt their focus toward teaching the subjects more aligned with what employers need and want. And economic developers should emphasize diversifying the economy and seeking employers who will be bolstered by technology.

Fortunately, the Tri-State area economy may be moving with the technology shift rather than being left behind by it. In the Milken Institute's 2012 Best-Performing Cities rankings, the Huntington-Ashland area ranked second among the nation's 200 largest metropolitan areas in the growth of its high-tech sector output.

The Huntington-Ashland area stood out in three of 19 categories examined by the Milken researchers -- medical devices, diagnostics and lab equipment, and telecom. Fueling those positive ratings were the relative strength of the region's health care industry, including several large hospitals and companies such as Alcon Inc., as well as research initiatives at Marshall University and the presence of such companies as DirecTV and Amazon.com.

There's still a long way to go, as noted in the Milken report. While the region does well in high-tech growth rate, it ranks toward the bottom among the 200 largest cities in actual high-tech output.

Going forward, it's important for the region to build on its assets, such as health care and research spinoffs. Economic development should be aimed at businesses and industries that can build on technology advances. Education should emphasize the skills that will be in demand in the future and not become antiquated by computer software and other technology. Policies should be implemented to combat the widespread problem of substance abuse that prevents so many of the Tri-State's residents from learning important skills and winning gainful employment. And job-seekers and young people looking to their future job prospects should pursue goals that will make them attractive to employers.

All of this amounts to a tall order. But the shift in the economy requires action to get there.

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