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Voters need to make jobs-education connection

Oct. 12, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Jobs and the economy form the top issue this election year for voters in our region and across the country.

In Gallup polls, 92 percent of likely voters have said the economy is "extremely" or "very important" to them, and 82 percent felt that way about the issue of unemployment. Even critical issues such as federal spending and health care reform do not rank as high in the mind of the electorate.

With the difficult job market of the past four years, that is not surprising. Few households have been untouched by layoffs, salary freezes or benefit reductions. Moreover, even as some business segments have improved, there has not been a rush to rehire workers in the same positions as before.

To survive, businesses have kept operations lean as they push for new efficiencies, resulting in a slow "jobless recovery" unlike anything economists have seen after past downturns. In today's workplace, the focus is on skills, knowledge and technology.

That means education is more important than ever, and political analysts speaking in Huntington this week said voters need to make that connection. That is especially true in West Virginia, which ranks low on almost every measure of education levels and achievement.

"Right now, the economy and jobs are No. 1 in how people are going to vote," Chuck Flannery, an experienced campaign organizer, told the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative luncheon this week. "Until the distinction is made that jobs and economy hinge on education, it won't change people's vote."

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, challenged the business audience to help voters understand that education is an economic issue.

That not only is important in creating new jobs, but also in matching up workers with the jobs that are available today.

For example, about 29 percent of the West Virginia work force is low-skilled, but only 20 percent of the jobs are low-skilled, according to a study by the Southern Governors' Association. When it comes to better paying jobs, the situation is reversed. About 54 percent of the jobs in West Virginia require "middle skills" such as community college training, but only 44 percent of the work force has those "middle skills."

That is why even in these difficult economic times companies have a hard time finding drug-free workers with the skill sets they need.

Retooling the state's education system to improve that picture is a critical challenge that means:

A strong and sustained response to the problems outlined in the recent audit of West Virginia's public schools. Much needs to be done to improve student performance and decrease truancy and dropout rates.

Continued expansion of community and technical college programs that match training to the needs of business and provides options for both young and older workers.

An affordable and efficient approach to higher education that helps students not just attend college but graduate.

Voters need to make the connection between jobs and education and insist elected officials do, too.

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