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Workplace readiness tops West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s priority list

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Officials with the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce have a lengthy list of issues they want to see the state Legislature tackle, but making sure Mountain State residents are ready to go to work is at the top of the list.

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts says making sure there are enough qualified workers in West Virginia probably will be one of the organization’s biggest priorities in coming years.
(West Virginia Chamber of Commerce photo)

“Education, workforce preparation and the talent pipeline are likely to be the Chamber’s highest priorities into the future,” said state Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts.

With the lowest level of workforce participation in the nation, an opioid drug epidemic, relatively low levels of college participation and a changing job market, it will be increasingly important to provide a trained, drug-free workforce to fuel the state’s economy, Roberts said.

The good news, Roberts said, is that recent figures show the Mountain State has added 15,400 new jobs. The bad news is finding people available to fill positions.

“It isn’t that there are no jobs out there,” Roberts said. He said the problem is that the available jobs aren’t where the people are, or that the people who are available to work aren’t trained to do the work.

“We don’t have enough (trained workers),” he said. “We know the Legislature sees the problem, employers see the problem and working-age adults see the problem.”

But finding ways to get qualified West Virginians into the workforce is a somewhat intangible issue, Roberts conceded.

“We’ve done the more obvious things in West Virginia (to improve the economy),” Roberts said. “We’ve cut taxes, we’ve passed right-to-work (legislation), we’ve made meaningful progress on our court kinds of problems. We’ve pretty thoroughly examined the regulatory climate.

“The hardest one to do is education and the talent pipeline.”

Roberts said the Chamber did have some more concrete ideas in mind for improving access to colleges and technical programs potential workers will need.

One is to provide tax credits to businesses who are willing to send people to college or technical schools. Another is to encourage industry leaders to communicate with the state’s technical schools and colleges to make sure they’re turning out graduates will skills needed for the workforce.

Another idea is a plan that will be under consideration in the state Senate for the state to pick up at least part of the tab for continuing education.

“We’re actually talking to people about reduced or no-charge technical college,” Roberts said. He said the state of Kentucky provides for free technical education and actually guarantees jobs for those who complete training.

State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has said it would cost about $7 million to $8 million a year for the state to fund free technical college classes.

Whether West Virginians will take advantage of more workforce training opportunities remains to be seen. “We have to make it more attractive to work than to not work,” Roberts said.

Another key issue Chamber of Commerce members are concerned with is tax reform. Roberts said the Chamber would like to see West Virginia do away with tangible personal property taxes, a proposition that would require a constitutional amendment.

It would also require the state to come up with a way to replace almost $589 million a year that personal property taxes contribute to the revenue stream.

“We all agree the revenue needs to be replaced,” Roberts said.

One fairly easy thing the Legislature could do would be to do away with West Virginia’s tax on business inventory, which business owners have long complained about. Roberts said the business inventory tax brings in about $70 million, a much smaller hole for lawmakers to fill in the budget.

“If you start breaking (tax reform) into pieces, it looks much more doable,” Roberts said.

Staff Writer Rusty Marks can be reached at 304-415-1480 or email at [email protected]

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