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It's not very often that a state can go from last to first in any category without first undergoing years of struggle and clawing its way to the top; however, this is exactly what West Virginia did when it created an astounding number of construction jobs in 2017.

From January to December of 2017, construction jobs in West Virginia jumped by 4,300, an increase of more than 14 percent, making it the highest growth in the country, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America of U.S Department of Labor.

Experts in this field point to the state's "Roads to Prosperity" bond referendum, as well as the advancement of several pipeline projects in the northern part of West Virginia as the reason for this growth.

In the oil and gas industry alone, employment has continued to rise, more than tripling over the first three quarter of 2018, rising from 4,276 to 14,476, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

Prior to 2017, the number of jobs in the oil and gas industry in West Virginia hovered at or under 3,000.

While these two industries have picked up momentum due to ongoing projects, eventually those projects will be finished, begging the question of whether or not West Virginia will slip back down to the bottom of the pack once again.

Many with a stake in the construction business are working to ensure this momentum does not fade by pushing for investments in infrastructure to entice existing businesses to grow as well as new businesses to relocate to the Mountain State, while also encouraging more training in the construction field to school-age children in order to build a large workforce, which is already needed.

One of those individuals striking for this is Mike Clowser, the executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia, which serves the interest of contractors who perform commercial building, utility, industrial, highway and heavy construction throughout the state of West Virginia.

In February, The Herald-Dispatch spoke with Clowser about his thoughts on West Virginia construction industry, specifically where it's been, where it's going and how will it benefit those chose to call the state home.

Q: How did West Virginia go from being at the very bottom of the pack in construction employment to leading the country in construction employment growth?

A: West Virginia from 2011 to about 2014, out of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C, was ranking about 50th in the country in construction job growth. A couple of times we were 51st.

This is because West Virginia construction employment for a number of years was very lagging.

But then between January and December of 2017 construction jobs grew by 4,300, a growth rate of more than 14 percent, which made us the highest percentage of job growth in the country for 2017.

Here we were being national ranked 50th and 51st for a number of years and in 2017 we had the largest percentage of construction growth in the country taking us to number one.

A large part of that turnaround can be attributed to the construction activity from Gov. Jim Justice's road building campaign, including the "Roads to Prosperity" bond amendment and the West Virginia Legislature increasing funding for the West Virginia Division of Highways, which all happened in 2017.

What we saw was once funding was available and once the Division of Highways started getting projects out, not only did you see construction employment rising in the state, but we saw a number of other areas that supplied the construction industry - steel, aggregate, asphalt suppliers - we saw those people hiring.

We also saw engineering firms hiring additional people to design the projects, so with the highway funding bill plus the Roads to Prosperity bond amendment, we are seeing more construction employment in the state.

Another factor leading to West Virginia's number one ranking is the multiple natural gas line projects underway in the state. We have many contractors and subcontractors from supply firms that are working in the oil and gas industry designing and constructing well pads, retention ponds, access roads, water lines, everything associated with putting in a pipeline.

Also what we've seen is for the first time in a long time, our contractors are going back to work in the coal mines. A lot of our members routinely work at coal companies doing mine face ups, working on haul roads and other construction related activities.

The state also approved an $80 million bond package for improvements at state parks and recreation facilities around the state.

Q: Is this growth in construction jobs evenly disbursed throughout the state or is it clustered in certain areas?

A: We are seeing pretty much a dichotomy between the northern part and the southern part of West Virginia.

We have a lot of members north of Charleston, in Clarksburg, Morgantown, Wheeling and in the Eastern Panhandle section of the state, that have a lot of work going on. They are actually looking for employees.

But when you're looking at Charleston and going south into Mercer County and McDowell County, there is not a lot of construction activity going on in that part of the state that we see right now.

You have oil and gas construction in the northern part of the state, then there is a lot of work at West Virginian University, there is development going on in Clarksburg, Procter & Gamble in the eastern part of the state - you've got a lot more development activity there than what is going on in the southern part of the state.

The question that we have as CAWV is what can we do to jump start economic development and job creation on all parts of West Virginia?

A few things we looked at within our association is developing infrastructure. You have to have a safe and modern road system in order to get companies wanting to come into the area.

You have to have modern water and sewer facilities that not only let existing companies expand because if your water or sewer system isn't up to speed you can't add capacity.

Companies who are moving in also want a modern school system, so you need to look at those counties that need to upgrade their middle schools and high schools to make sure that the students there have safe and modern school facilities to go to.

We have historically looked at the state continually investing in its infrastructure for economic development and for jobs. What we have seen with the road bond amendment and the highway funding bill, we are seeing more employment, which is obvious from the number you're looking at.

There is a direct correlation between investing in infrastructure and job growth in the state of West Virginia.

One of largest increase of construction jobs (in the nation) was in the Weirton-Steubenville, W.Va. OH Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes West Virginia's northern panhandle along with Ohio). It ranks third in the nation with a 21 percent increase in construction jobs from October 2017 to October 2018.

Out of 358 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (in the nation), the Huntington-Ashland MSA ranks 257. From December 2017 to December 2018, 100 construction jobs were added in the Huntington-Ashland MSA, (going from 7,700 construction jobs to 7,800).

There are a few things in Huntington that are beneficial. The retail construction going on there, we were also seeing some hospital expansion and road construction on (Interstate) 64. Marshall University is also doing new construction. Having Marshall down there is obviously a catalyst for that area. This is why it's been a little different from the southern West Virginia downturn.

Charleston is among the worst, ranking 354 in its MSA. From December 2017 to December 2018, it went from 7,100 construction jobs to 6,700.

Q: With the construction industry growing in recent years, what is the CAWV doing to entice more individuals to choose construction as a career option?

A: Workforce development, that is our number one objective for the CAWV for this year is getting more qualified people into construction in the state of West Virginia.

A lot of our members in the northern panhandle, their issue is finding qualified workers. Our board of directors, hearing the concerns our members have, voted to make workforce development our number one priority for the year.

We have made great strides since we started this back in November. We have been meeting with Steve Paine (West Virginia's Superintendent of Schools) and his staff. We were also invited to participate in the annual meeting of their vocational teachers at Morgantown.

The governor has proposed "Jim's Dream," which is his plan to bring at-risk individuals that may or may not have addiction problems, but to be able to take those types of people and put them in a training program and make them viable applicants for not only construction but manufacturing and coal.

He has proposed that at the Legislature and has directed Maj. Gen. James Hoyer (adjutant general of the state's National Guard) to get that program up and running and we have been working with Hoyer and his staff to see what construction curriculum needs to be in place.

We are very excited about that opportunity and looking forward to working with the governor and his team and see if we can put a lot of West Virginians to work in high-paying construction jobs.

Q: From my experience covering education, there seems to be a stigma associated with jobs such as these. Many feel that in order to have a successful career you have to attend a four-year college. How are you working to overcome these stigmas and show parents and students that there are alternative options that can yield just as successful a result?

A: That is probably one of the top issues that our workforce development taskforce is putting on the agenda.

Probably a lot of the counselors promote college prep or college entrance courses when a lot of these kids probably don't want to go to college or do not need to go to college or would have a great career making a lot of money and also have no debt when they walk out of school if we can train them.

That was one of the discussions we had with the vo-tech directors around the state.

How can we reach those students and show that construction is not working in a ditch with a shovel, it's working with technology and machines or working with design.

One of the key issues that out workforce development task force is charged with is how do we promote not only to the kids but to the parents, to let the parents know that their kids don't want to spend four years in college and four years racking up debt for a job that they may not want to do or will pay enough to pay off their college debt.

Q: What is the role of the Contractors Association of West Virginia in helping to aid the construction industry in West Virginia?

A: We are over 90 years old and we represent building contractors, water and sewer contractors, highway and bridge contractors - our members do industrial work, airports, hospitals and school office building and so forth. We like to think that (our members) build West Virginia.

If you look at the infrastructure in the state, if we did not have roads, if we did not have bridges, if we did not have water and sewer, obviously the quality of life would be much different in West Virginia.

Our members are the ones that go out and hire the individuals who go out every day, put those boots on and go out and build these projects.

What we try to do as the CAWV is to be the voice of construction, to advance our issue that we must invest in infrastructure in order to create jobs and economic development.

We do that by working with the governor and his administration and working with the Legislature. We try to promote the fact that there will not be businesses moving in or jobs created until we build the necessary infrastructure that allows those companies to come in and flourish and to grow and be able to locate here.

We represent individual companies, and our roughly 450 members probably employ over 20,000 West Virginians throughout the state.

If there is something that is affecting the construction industry, our members are the first to know and most importantly our members are at the table on those issues affecting their companies, whether it's their ability to work or to compete or how they perform their work.

Any federal or state agency that puts out construction projects, we have a joint committee with them to where we talk about specifications and technical issues, methods of constructions - all of those discussions are centered around how can we build a better product at a lesser price for the taxpayers who ultimately fund these projects.

I think our members appreciate the fact that we're at the table participating in those discussions that foster and benefit the construction industry and ultimately we think it benefits the taxpayers of West Virginia with coming up with better and cheaper ways to build roads and bridges, schools, and water and sewer systems.

Q: Construction jobs in West Virginia have continued to grow over the past few years, but what is the likelihood that the state can sustain this growth?

A: That gets back to the purpose of the CAWV. We have historically promoted investing in infrastructure as a way to create jobs and as a way to create economic development in that state of West Virginia and we're going to continue to do that.

I think after this road program and after the oil and gas pipeline - obviously once those projects are done the question is how do you sustain that?

But one of the purposes of doing the Roads to Prosperity projects is to create more economic development opportunities for the state.

If we continue to promote good schools and money for upgrading our schools, if we continue promoting infrastructure development for companies to have a readily available site to come in and build and move into - as long as we keep investing in infrastructure, West Virginia will continue to grow, will continue to create jobs which will continue to be in construction to build and maintains those.

We think that there is always going to be a need for good qualified individuals moving into the construction industry.

I've always joked but I firmly believe it, the road to progress is always under construction and as long as we are doing construction in the state of West Virginia, we are going to continue to progress here.


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