Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Employment & Wages Update

This is an update concerning the WV wages and employment with the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Historical data is only available up to the second quarter of 2014, which ended in June 2014. While the average U.S. state posted a gain of 1.56% in employment from June 2013 to June 2014, WV had negative employment growth of -0.3%. It was one of three states/territories to lose jobs over that period. The other two areas to have negative job growth were the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. This is a continuation of the weak employment recovery from the financial crisis of 2008. But it is disappointing that WV could not post even moderate positive employment growth over that 12-month time span, especially given the ability of every contiguous state to do just that.
Looking at the breakdown of employment growth and decline among WV counties shows great inequality. Doddridge County had job growth of +19% from June 2013 to 2014 to lead the state, while Mingo County had negative employment growth of -14.9% at the bottom of the list. Thirty-six of the fifty-five counties had flat or negative employment growth for this period. Counties with stagnant or negative employment included some of the counties with relatively high average weekly wages. Mingo County had the 3rd highest average weekly wage at $936, but had the worst job losses; Putnam County had the 5th highest weekly wage ($907), however it gained 0% employment. Kanawha County had -0.1% job growth with the 12th highest weekly wages of $830.
Unsurprisingly, most of the employment decline and growth is tied to natural resources. Coal mine closures in Mingo County are probably responsible for the majority of job losses. Legislation proposed to give tax credits to employers who locate on reclaimed mine properties is unlikely to have much of an effect. Tax credits may sound appealing, but if employers have no other reason to locate in a particular area (access to markets, natural resources, skilled workforce) they will not obey some politician's whim. On the other side of the spectrum, natural gas projects in the northern counties are adding to employment growth. This is powered by Marcellus Shale drilling and its support services, pipeline transmission, and electricity generators that are flooding those counties. That growth is not without negative side-effects, as some residents cope with increased truck traffic on local roads, consumption of large volumes of water from local sources, and load noises from drilling activity. The potential for explosions from highly pressurized gas, due to inattentive operators, and the constant worry of water contamination from the public will also continue to hamper the natural gas industry.
The search for new industries and employment diversification continues in WV. Natural resource exploitation, education, health care, and government work have offered the extent of employment opportunities in recent state history. That has landed WV with the 41st highest average weekly wage ($792) of 50 states. And it failed to contribute net job growth in the most recent period. More than tax breaks will be required to alter the state's employment picture. It will take a wide-scale change in workforce skills that attract existing companies and a thriving small business sector. That may not be possible to achieve with any set of policy tools.

Addendum: To be fair, employment has mostly recovered in WV since the 2008 recession. Seasonally controlled net employment is down from a 10-year peak of 715,677 in 2008 to 711,266 in June of 2014. The recovery of jobs seems to have leveled off since 2012 with declining employment over the last few quarters. The picture is not too bleak if we consider that from 2004 to 2014 employment in WV has increased from 694,322 workers to 711,266 workers - a gain of 16,944 net jobs.

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