Republican state leaders have been arguing for years that the state tax rates are preventing businesses from bringing jobs to West Virginia. Projected growth shows that while they may not come at the same rate those lawmakers want to see, jobs will come as the national economy turns around. There’s another factor, however, that’s starting to worry educators when it comes to the state’s economic future. And that’s the number of highly skilled workers ready to fill those positions.
Higher education officials are telling lawmakers they’re doing what they can now to prevent a major shortage in the future. A shortage they believe will ultimately stunt the state’s economic growth.
It seems to start with a simple question: What do West Virginia’s high school students do after graduation? The answer, however, is not so simple.
The State Department of Education says in the 2011-2012 school year West Virginia graduated more than 18,000 students from both public and private high schools. Of those students, about 56 percent enrolled into a higher education institution, including both 2 and 4 year colleges and universities.
The national average, however, is closer to 65 percent, leaving West Virginia almost 10 percentage points behind the rest of the country.
Executive Vice Chancellor for Administration of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Rob Anderson told an education subcommittee during legislative interim meetings, choosing whether or not to continue on to higher education is a multi-faceted decision.
“There are several important factors that influence their ability to do this including what’s their career interest, what’s their ability to pay for further education and what is their basic knowledge of the college going process that allows them to navigate?” Anderson said Tuesday.
Anderson said all of those factors play a heavy role for West Virginia students.
As far as ability to pay, Anderson said national data has repeatedly shown students from low income families are less likely to apply for college than students from higher income homes with the exact same academic standing.
“Resources and understanding of process make a huge difference on whether or not a student applies to go to college,” he told the committee.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 18 percent of West Virginians over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher, meaning those seniors are also likely to be first generation college students with parents unaware of how to navigate the application, financial aid, or class selection processes.
“Although numerous studies show that going to college does pay financially, you’re less likely to be laid off in an economic downturn and you’ll make more money over the life of you career generally,” he said, “this future message can be lost on someone whose ability to pay is in doubt or doesn’t have an example of someone in their family who has gone to college and has succeeded while there.”
Anderson told lawmakers the state has started several initiatives to help educate students and their families about the real cost of college at West Virginia’s institutions and to help them navigate the application processes. He said they seem to be working, but the state has yet to see a significant increase in college enrollment.
The bigger picture comes down to the workforce having enough highly trained, highly skilled workers to take on the anticipated economic growth of the future.
According to a study published by the Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute, by the year 2020, West Virginia will be more than 74,000 workers short of filling the jobs that will be available.
Associate Superintendent of State Schools Dr. Kathy D’Antoni said the state’s college-going rate plays a major part in being able to fill those jobs in the future, but so does Career and Technical Education.
Of the 18,300 graduating seniors in 2012, about 5,000 completed a Career and Technical Education certification, or just over 27 percent of students.
“In a world that would make West Virginia’s economy or workforce a little stronger that should actually be 70 percent,” D’Antoni told legislators. “So, you can see what we need to do in those particular areas because that’s where the jobs are and that is the forecast for high skill, high wage jobs.”
D’Antoni said while the numbers of those receiving Career Tech certifications are low, of those finishing a program, 49 percent go on to continue their education while 40 percent are able to find employment in their chosen field.
“So, they’re getting the skill sets or credentials necessary to find employment in West Virginia. Three percent go into the military and then you have a smattering that is not working or not looking for work,” she said, “but out of all the CTE completers we have about a 92 or 93 percent placement rate either into higher ed or into work.”
D’Antoni reported she and the Department of Education, along with the Council for Community and Technical Colleges, are working to find ways to improve student enrollment, including expanding their programs to meet the specific needs of industries in the state.