So what are these two highly important segments of the economy that will determine the future of West Virginia? Is it coal, natural gas, timber, manufacturing, or perhaps tourism? If you are still living in the 20th century then you may be correct. I would argue that although important, none of these are as important as the two major areas that will provide a successful thriving and exciting life in the 21st century. So, if you have been interested enough to read this far, then I should tell you. They are Education and Telecommunications. Here is why.
Our state will remain in a recession for the foreseeable future because we have not properly addressed these two most important issues. While the great recession and economic downturn of the past 10 years affected other states, West Virginia was still able to rely on coal and a booming gas industry. The southern coal fields which drove the economic engine of the state for over a century have slowly shut down while the north central and eastern panhandle areas have begun to show promise. This is all part of the economic evolution of our state, our country and the world. Like it or not, it is what it is.
The past is but a memory, so trying to revive the past will be futile and irresponsible. Change is necessary along with some BOLD thinking and BOLD ideas. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and lived through the decline of the steel industry. The recession of the 1980’s is still a vivid memory for me as I watched my father’s business wither with the local economy. I can still recall the day when the steel mill closed leaving thousands of families without an income. Supermarkets like my father’s along with many other businesses were soon to follow. Thirty of our employees lost their jobs along with me.
As a young man I was forced to pack my bags and leave town for a place that had more to offer. Steel would never come back to the “Steel City”, but in the years since, a diverse economy emerged and new industries and business sectors were born.
Any child who studies history can draw the conclusion that nations, cities and towns who rely on a few industries experience growth in an economic boom. When times are good, nobody really thinks about what will happen when the resource or boom ends and conditions change. Any reputable financial adviser will always tell his clients to diversity their portfolio. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket! But in some respects, that is what we have done here in our state. It’s nobody’s fault, just human nature. And nature repeats itself time and time again. Question is, with our collective intelligence we should be able to properly chart a course to a future that will not land us in this position again. That leads to the two major all important things we all need to concentrate on going forward:
Education: If you are not educated for the 21st century, if you are not a knowledge worker, if you cannot think critically, if you were happy you just graduated high school, you are going to have a very tough time making a living now and in the future.
In my opinion, manufacturing will return to the United States in a big way. The reason is that manufacturing in the 21st century will involve a heavy dose of technology and engineering. Robots and automation will drive the resurgence simply due to the fact that robotics cost about same to operate in China as they do here. The savings and incentive for moving back here will result from not having to transport goods halfway around the world. The workers will need to be skilled in engineering, logistics, electronics, and software. We live in a state that is located close to the some of the highest population centers in the country and sit on the energy necessary to produce it along with the resources to feed it. BUT, our education system was designed, is run and is funded for the 20th century. If bold, new thinking and funding is not brought to our education system, we not only miss the opportunity, we lose our best young minds to another state. If you haven’t noticed, we already are losing them by the busload and I don’t blame them one bit.
When I attend national and regional technology conferences, I am made aware of the stereotypes this state has and some of those perceptions are true. It hurts because we all have an emotional and physical attachment to our state and are proud of who we are, but deep down we also know that we must take responsibility for being at the bottom of so many negative national statistics. At the end of the day it is no one’s fault but our own and we are the ones who must decide to make the changes necessary. Turning around our education system will be very hard to do, however inaction and status quo will only keep us at the bottom of the economic ladder subsisting on scraps dished out by federal programs.
Telecommunications: For years I have been an advocate of the Internet and have built my company around it staking my savings, my reputation and experience on what it has to offer. Without access to the “digital economy” we will be left out and relegated to second class. This country crossed the divide of being an industrial powerhouse to one of technology and services decades ago. Today the most powerful and successful companies are built around digital technology. The auto industry needed a bailout from the government. All you have to do is look at textiles, furniture, steel, heavy machinery the list goes on. Our state and our nation can and will bring back the “Made in America” status, however it will be done with new methods, new ideas and a totally new labor force that is digitally connected and educated. These connections that include our roads, pipelines and most important our communications systems are the circulatory and nervous system that carries the life blood of any economy. It is time that West Virginia stakes its claim and taps in.
There are those who say that we should allow the private sector to build the necessary communications infrastructure. That may work for areas of high population living on flat land. This is not the case in our state. No amount of wishful thinking is going to convince a business to spend the money necessary to build our digital highway. Ironically, this digital highway can be built for the price of a couple miles of new four lane highway. The economic impact of this digital highway could far exceed that of a highway built for trucks and cars and the return on investment will be a hundred times greater.
As citizens of this state we need to set our priorities now and take the bold steps necessary to bring together private and public expertise and lay the foundation of a new economy. This new economy can be one that we decide and shape for ourselves. One that incorporates the heritage and beauty of our surroundings. In a planned way, it should foster new companies and innovation to drive employment and a better standard of living. We need to create an environment that provides opportunity to our young graduates to start new businesses. If we don’t concentrate on the two major issues facing us head on, they will continue to hold us back from what we can and should be.
So next time our lawmakers spend precious resources and tax dollars talking about raw milk legislation or gun carry rules let them know that there is a speeding unemployment train coming our way and they have bigger things to take care of first. Otherwise we won’t be able to buy milk for our families or ammo for our guns.