Bringing Them Back
In your Mike Myer’s Sunday column, he raised the question of how to retain our current youth population and recruit others to the state. The answer is that we need to do two really big things very quickly: Fix our infrastructure and revamp our education system. Both would be expensive, so we would need to consider as well how to pay for what we need.
West Virginia is on the edge of a group of “rust belt” states in which innovation is bringing about transformation that generates jobs and economic growth. In those areas that are benefiting from innovation-based change; the change is based on a well-articulated plan for bringing about collaborative, cooperative efforts of academia, business, and government to utilize the resources and strengths of each element to design and implement plans to address the socio-economic problems of a specific region.
In the case of West Virginia, infrastructure is one major problem that impedes both retention and growth. Our secondary roads are totally inadequate to meet the demands of changes in materials handling and shipping industries that are being driven by both technological change and efficiency and cost considerations. The technological changes are largely due to computer-based changes occurring to vehicles, routing, packaging, and timing of pick-up and delivery. West Virginia’s roads are not adequate for the demands of 21st century shipping. But even worse is that parts of West Virginia do not have adequate access to high-speed internet that 21st century businesses — including materials handling and shipping industry –depend on.
The millennials who are our current entry-level to mid-level workers like living in towns, small cities, and the outer suburbs of major cities. West Virginia has an abundance of places that would normally be attractive to this group. But they also want these places to have high-speed internet access and an abundance of small local shops and eateries, but also easy access to the amenities of major cities and same-day or next-day delivery from on-line retailers. Our existing infrastructure, both physical and digital, cannot provide the latter in much of the state. Until it does, we are not going to be able to retain our best and brightest young people or attract others in the numbers we need to.
The other major problem is our education system. For many years, West Virginia has not provided throughout the state the quality of education that is needed by today’s young people. Our education in mathematics and science have been especially problematic. The brief time that we tried to implement “common core” standards showed us just how far behind we were. Our solution to major failure to meet those standards was to get rid of that set of standards rather than to improve the quality of our education to make progress toward its standards. Lack of adequate access to high-speed internet everywhere in the state precludes some options for improving the quality of education. It also cuts off some options for addressing the problem of adequately staffing schools in small towns and counties, which suffer from the current formula for teacher allocation. Poor teacher salaries and low overall school budgets are major barriers to competing for the best-educated, most-experienced teachers available nation-wide. Too often, our pool of affordable teacher recruits is limited to new college graduates who are native West Virginians wiling to stay here despite the salaries.
To address these problems, we need for our legislature to recognize what all we need to fix and then to devise a plan to fix it. They then need to re-design the entire tax structure to raise the revenue needed to pay for it. These must be the first priorities.