CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “I’ve been looking for a genie in a lamp for quite some time. I haven’t found that lamp yet. If you find it, please be sure and point it toward workforce.”
That’s what State Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, said on Friday during the WV Press Association’s annual “Legislative Lookahead” media event at the Culture Center in Charleston.
Roberts spoke as part of the five-person “Workforce” panel, which also included AARP W.Va. President Jane Marks, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) W.Va. President Fred Albert, West Virginia Department of Education Technical Education Officer Clinton Burch, and Justin Williams with the W.Va. State Building & Construction Trades Council.
Roberts, who serves as chair of the Senate Workforce Committee and vice chair of the Education Committee, believes that “all things come back to the workforce.”
“What are we doing to prepare the workforce?” Roberts asked. “What are we doing to take care of the workforce? What are we doing to increase the workforce? All of those things are very, very important.”
According to Roberts, the Senate is ready to “jump in with both feet first” in order to meet the challenges of workforce development head-on: “We will work together.”
“For decades and decades we have lost population in West Virginia,” Roberts said. “Lots of people have run away. But I say this: I haven’t, and you haven’t. I care about advancing the right things that will help West Virginians. I think and hope that is your motivation, also.
“Let’s work together,” Roberts continued, before requesting that the media “keep the Legislature on their feet.”
“But at the same point, can I just make this request: Remember that we are all here and we all care,” Roberts added. “Our differences are fine – our differences can be our strength if we let them.”
With regard to the upcoming legislative session, Roberts listed increased pay and benefits for state workers, updating “unreasonable” worker-classification standards, and taking care of “those people who are doing the business of West Virginia” among the Workforce Committee’s top priorities.
AARP West Virginia’s Jane Marks told those in attendance, “I think we’ve all personally experienced this workforce challenge. We see the ‘Help Wanted’ signs on the doors and in the windows.”
Marks spoke of the recent closure of her local Panera Bread restaurant as being an inconvenience, then added, “But sometimes it’s serious.”
“We hear from small business owners that they can’t find employees,” Marks said. “We’ve even heard that hospitals are closing units due to lack of staff.”
Marks then referenced the statewide shortage of direct-care workers as being an under-reported issue of considerable concern, before noting that one in four West Virginians will reach the age of 65 by the year 2030.
According to Marks, West Virginia’s direct-care workforce is understaffed by “nearly 4,000 people.” In June of 2022, through a partnership between AARP and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), the West Virginia Direct Care Taskforce was created to combat the ongoing shortage. The taskforce has made recommendations to the state’s legislature based upon data gathered from three critical areas: wages and benefits, education and training opportunities, and improved job satisfaction.
At the conclusion of Mark’s presentation, the AFT’s Fred Albert told Sen. Roberts that the elusive lamp which the senator has been looking for is education.
“We will not have a good workforce unless we have a strong education system,” Albert noted, before addressing the state’s current teacher shortage.
A recent study conducted by the AFT showed that West Virginia is in a similar situation as many other states across the country with regard to teacher recruitment and retention.
“We have a serious problem,” Albert said, “and it’s growing.”
According to the AFT’s study, the number of uncertified public school teachers in West Virginia has grown from 600 in 2018 to 1,544 as of October 2022. Albert then cited the abundance of unnecessary work, lack of respect, poor salary offerings, and lack of freedom within the classroom as the primary driving forces behind the shortage.
“We need to allow them (teachers) to do the job they’ve been trained to do,” Albert said.
Justin Williams, the panel’s fourth member, began by praising the “20,000-plus construction workers in West Virginia” tasked with maintaining the state’s infrastructure.
“When it’s cold, and the power goes out like it did two Fridays ago, they’re out there working to get your power back on while we’re all complaining about it,” Williams said.
As part of the Building & Construction Trades Council, Williams represents the interests of those workers, while working closely with the Department of Education in the development of the state’s Career Technical Education (CTE) apprenticeship programs.
“Apprenticeship programs have existed for 100-plus years and have trained these workforces for that long,” Williams noted. “But that also shows that we’re very adaptable to training new people for the next set of jobs.”
Williams then spoke briefly about the State Department of Education’s Department of Diversion and Transition: “This is the same kind of CTE programs that adults and juveniles have, but in the corrections world.”
According to Williams, this is a “great opportunity” for people to gain valuable training with high-demand, real-world applications prior to being released from incarceration. Williams then mentioned driver’s licensing issues and transportation as necessary future conversations to be had with the Legislature.
“The second part of it is the associate’s degree program,” Williams added, referencing the initiative to award college degrees to those who complete certain technical training and apprenticeship programs.
The panel’s final speaker, Technical Education Officer Clinton Burch, told reporters, “I think I have the best job in the entire state of West Virginia because of what I get to do every day – I get to make connections with people, like this, to create student opportunities.
“It’s all about career literacy,” Burch added.
According to Burch, most West Virginia students would rather find suitable employment in the state, preferably within 50 miles of their hometown. Burch believes that partnerships with trade, manufacturing, aerospace, and contracting associations are critical to educating students about the opportunities available to them.
“Having opportunities like today with all of you (members of the media), it helps us to get that message out,” Burch said, before briefly explaining the “Discover Your Future” program.
“This is a middle school program that is in 31 counties currently,” Burch explained. “What it is, is a CTE course that was developed by fifth- and sixth-grade teachers from around the state. And what it does is it introduces students to the 16 career clusters.”
For each “career cluster,” there is a corresponding two-week module for participating students. According to Burch, the modules were developed to be both fun and engaging.
“If you’re really going to get kids introduced and excited about a career, you have to show that enthusiasm,” Burch said. “We as a group here, as our industries, we have to be enthusiastic about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Burch further explained that the Discover Your Future program is not intended to convince students to settle on a career at an early age, but rather to expose more students to the numerous career paths available to them.