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Editorial: Education, skills key to improving earning power in W.Va.

From The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington:

Only about half of West Virginia adults are working these days, and a quarter of those who do have jobs don’t make much money.

Those troubling trends underscore the need to bring more good jobs to the Mountain State, but a deeper dive into the statistics shows the problem is more than just numbers of jobs and also involves the jobs many workers are prepared to do.

Much has been written about the state’s poor workforce participation rate, which was about 49 percent in 2016. That’s the lowest in the country and 13 points below the 62 percent rate for the nation as a whole. Aging, poor health and disability all play into those low rates, but the workforce participation rates are low for those under 55 as well. Are some of these former workers just discouraged by their prospects?

A recent analysis of “low wage” work and workers in the state indicates that is probably true. Almost a quarter of West Virginia workers earn $11.59 an hour ($24,108 per year) or less – a wage that puts them at about 150 percent of poverty level for a family of two in 2016, according to the study by The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

Some are younger, but many are older workers, too. But the most telling demographic factor is education.

About 44 percent of the workers with less than a high school education fall into that low-wage category. Less than 30 percent of workers with a high-school degree or equivalent are considered low wage and that drops to around 10 percent or less for those with associate degrees and college degrees. Many of those are probably younger workers just starting out.

Certainly raising the minimum wage in West Virginia, which is $8.75 an hour, would help many of these workers, and that is one of the study’s recommendations. In fact, the study estimates that more than half of “low-wage” workers are at the minimum wage.

But that alone will not change the picture very much. Even with an increase to $11 or $12 an hour, many of these workers will still be hovering just above poverty level. Moreover, sharp increases in the minimum wage can reduce work opportunities for teens and those seeking part-time work.

The critical need for West Virginia is to raise the education levels and skill sets for these workers, whether they are young or old. That puts them in the position to earn a living wage and could even draw discouraged workers back into the workforce.

In the short run, the state does need to be mindful a large part of its working population is struggling. That means protecting Medicaid funding and considering a state “Earned Income Tax Credit,” that puts more money back in their pockets.

But for long term, the best investment is helping these workers gain the education and skills to get a better job.

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