Drug abuse, workforce must be addressed

An editorial from The Inter-Mountain

ELKINS, W.Va. — Two of the toughest policy issues state officials need to address if West Virginia is to move forward are drug abuse and the state’s dismally low workforce participation rate. It appears they are linked.

In November, the state’s workforce participation rate was – by far – the lowest in the nation, at 53.2 percent, according to the federal government. The rate is calculated as a percentage of people 16 and over who are able to work and are employed.

A look at the November unemployment rate, 6.3 percent, seems to indicate that the state’s economy is not doing badly. But that does not take into account people who, for one reason or another, are not even looking for jobs.

Earlier this month, state legislators heard testimony related to both that and West Virginia’s epidemic of drug abuse.

There was good news in the report, by an official of one of the state’s top wood-products companies. Allegheny Wood Products Vice President Dean Alanko told lawmakers severe problems in his industry from 2005-12 seem to be improving. During that period, hardwood production in the state dropped by 55 percent compared to the previous few years.

But, helped by increasing exports, the industry is rebounding, Alanko said.

A major challenge in taking advantage of new markets is finding people to cut timber and process hardwood products, however.

Alanko told legislators that if a wood products company can hire one employee who stays with it for a long period of time out of 20 applicants, it is doing well. Of those 20, 10 do not return after interviews for mandatory drug testing. Of the remaining 10, half fail drug tests.

A convincing case can be made that of West Virginians in the potential workforce who are not employed and are not seeking jobs, many are using illegal drugs.

Solely from a humanitarian standpoint, it is critical that West Virginians win the war against drug abuse. Clearly, however, it also is important to our economy. We need more people in the workforce pool to be employed or looking for work – and not being disqualified because they are abusing drugs.

What’s the solution? We don’t know. But state officials need to be looking at the situation and finding better ways of addressing it.

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