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Eastern Panhandle economy strongest in state

By JOHN McVEY

The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va.  — Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties are outliers compared to the rest of West Virginia, but in a positive way, according to John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

“In every single economic metric, the Eastern Panhandle is an outlier. In every economic statistic, the Eastern Panhandle is the strongest region in West Virginia, and it continues to grow. There is a lot of prosperity here. The quality of life is high and the cost of living is low,” Deskins told a gathering of business leaders Wednesday during the 2017 Eastern Panhandle Economic Outlook Conference at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.

By comparison, Deskins said the Southern Coalfields region has had a 26 percent loss in jobs and a 40 percent loss in real wages since 2012, while the Eastern Panhandle has seen an 8 percent increase in employment and a 9 percent increase in real wages during the same period.

“The Southern Coalfields remain in a Great Depression,” he said. “Mingo County alone has lost 40 percent of its jobs.”

He said the seven-county Southern Coalfields region has suffered the worst of the state’s regions since the economic downturn.

Other regions in southern West Virginia also have suffered by varying degrees, while regions in northern West Virginia have fared much better because of the natural gas boom and a more diversified economy.

Deskins said the three-county Eastern Panhandle has added about 4,000 jobs since 2011.

“The Eastern Panhandle’s job growth has been steady since 2011, and we expect it to grow at a rate of 0.9 percent over the next decade — that’s greater than the national growth rate,” he said.

Deskins forecast job growth in Berkeley County at nearly 1 percent, which is greater than the state forecast of about 0.7 percent.

Employment growth in Jefferson County is forecast to be close to 0.9 percent, and about 0.3 percent in Morgan County.

Manufacturing is forecast to lead all the major employment segments in the Panhandle at about 5 percent followed by construction at about 2 percent, and professional and business services at a little more than 1.5 percent.

Slight losses are projected in leisure and hospitality, and information.

The Eastern Panhandle leads the state with the lowest unemployment rates, although Deskins does put much value on jobless rates.

“The unemployment rate is meaningless,” Deskins said. “Labor force participation is the most fundamental long-term measurement.”

He said the labor participation rate for the United States is 63 percent.

In Jefferson County, it is 66 percent and in Berkeley County, 65.3.

“The Eastern Panhandle labor participation rate looks great, but there’s always room for improvement,” Deskins said.

The labor participation rate for West Virginia is 53 percent, the lowest of all the states.

Deskins said the labor participation rate measures residents who have dropped out of the labor market, but still want to have a job. He said the reason West Virginia’s rate is so low is three-fold.

“Workers’ education and training is out of whack with what employers need; West Virginia has the worst health outcomes of the nation; and people are caught up in the drug abuse epidemic,” Deskins said.

The population growth in the Eastern Panhandle also is projected to outpace the rest of the state, he said.

The Eastern Panhandle has seen continuous growth even during the Great Recession, and is projected to reach about 200,000 in 2022. As of July 1, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the total population of Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties is 187,525.

The state population is expected to level off at about 1.82 million in 2022. According to the Census, the state population was about 1.83 million on July 1.

Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128, or [email protected]

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