The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our world, but in many ways, it has amplified existing trends as much as it has created new ones. Issues relating to the “digital divide,” income inequality, workforce automation and the environment have been at play long before this newest challenge. Now they stand to affect us all in ways we have yet to fully appreciate. From work to school and from commerce to entertainment, we have all made changes that redefine what we consider essential.
What has not changed is the imperative to find solutions to the issues that have made improving the lives of all West Virginians more challenging. Ensuring that our students gain the skills that form pathways to careers and that out-of-work West Virginians develop the skills to find new jobs are fundamental components to meeting these challenges. Providing technology training and assets (both in and out of classroom environments) will prepare our students to engage in promising industries with high-paying jobs. Each of these go hand in hand with access to broadband.
Broadband internet service can no longer be viewed as a luxury good. Instead it is an essential utility, and for businesses large and small, a key component for competing in the 21st century economy. Rural communities, making up so much of our state, have been left out of broader conversations relating to infrastructure. The impacts from COVID-19 are illustrating how rural areas are being left behind once again. Developing public-private partnerships that support the deployment of robust broadband networks that ensure access to all West Virginians is essential.
Perhaps as importantly, the quality of that access matters. Meeting bare minimum thresholds simply is not enough. Instead we need to guarantee that all West Virginians can access the type of service that will meet the increasing need to securely conduct business, safely attend telehealth consultations and satisfactorily learn in online environments.
The Great Recession brought about inferior housing and labor market outcomes for many West Virginians. This is especially true for older workers who saw job losses, longer times to find new opportunities and significant pay cuts. West Virginia employment recovered more quickly than many states following the Great Recession but declined again as the regional and national economies reoriented and retooled. It is possible that we will see repeat of these effects as the pandemic subsides. Young people, those with less formal education, and those older workers will be most vulnerable to further job dislocation — particularly in service industries. We need to examine effective ways to partner with employers to undertake massive up-skilling and retraining for our workforce.
Strategically employing our best resources, emerging technology, and community empowerment to prepare for future disruptions will be a vital component of our recovery.
Along with the accelerating pace of change, West Virginia is being afforded an unmistakable opportunity. The pandemic has compressed the timelines to act. Making a significant investment in broadband infrastructure now is the right thing to do and the best alternative for the future of our state.