Commerce secretary addresses energy forum _ news _ montgomery-herald. com

MORGANTOWN – West Virginia’s Commerce Secretary made it clear what type of businesses the state is trying to recruit and those it is not.

“We don’t recruit the extraction industry to West Virginia,” he said at National Energy Conference hosted by West Virginia University’s College of Law. The conference focused on West Virginia’s future beyond coal and the transition to a diversified economy.

Burdette said the Commerce Department is actively working to recruit industries which will diversify the state’s economy, including manufacturing.

Existing manufacturing activity in the Mountain State has seen a small boost in recent years, but it is still a small portion of the economy.

Although some parts of the state, such as the panhandles, are seeing economic growth, West Virginia is officially in a recession. And six counties in southern West Virginia are in a “Great Depression,” meaning that at least a third to a fourth of the jobs have vanished since 2008, said John Deskins, an economics professor at WVU.

Those coalfield counties are Boone, Clay, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell and Mingo.

The recession, according to Deskins, is the result of declining coal. Only eight years ago, West Virginia produced between 150 million and 160 million tons of coal. In 2015, West Virginia’s coal production dropped to 100 million tons, and for this year it is estimated to drop to about 80 million tons, said Deskins.

With numbers like that, state development officials said the need to transition West Virginia’s economy is now, not later.

Burdette said West Virginia is like former Democratic Presidential candidate “Martin O’Malley in a room full of Hillary Clintons. We cannot get attention” in the business community.

But that lack of attention is somewhat the state’s fault, he said. West Virginia’s workforce just isn’t that pretty on paper.

The state has a low-skilled workforce, the nation’s lowest college-educated workers, low basic skills and high school test scores and its substance abuse problem is known in business circles.

While those are negative, Burdette said, West Virginia has hard, dedicated workers who want to punch a time clock.

“I will stack our employees up against any other state’s workforce,” he said. “But a CEO in California doesn’t see our workforce’s strength, they see the stats,”

But Burdette said West Virginia needs to start meeting the educational demands of industry. As secretary of commerce he speaks with lots of people. In a recent conversation with a community college president he was told about 60 percent of freshman who had A’s and B’s in high school must take remedial courses before sitting attending regular college courses.

And fewer than 20 percent of those students taking remedial classes will actually graduate from college.

“There is a disconnect here and we need to fix it and fix it quick,” he said. The state “needs to get core skills in line with what West Virginia [businesses] needs.”

Burdette recently read a survey of CEOs and people who locate potential relocation sites which found 94 percent of the CEOs and 96 percent of relocation professionals said the No. 1 thing they look for before moving to a new location is a highly skilled workforce.

“That is a statistic we don’t have. We have hard working, efficient workers,” he said. But West Virginia lacks a skilled workforce.

Ironically, he said, right-to-work laws, passed this winter by the state Legislature, were no where near the top of what CEOs look for when deciding where to relocated a business.

Another economic development issue West Virginia faces is an absence of solid infrastructure. The state doesn’t just lack highways to rural areas, but those areas often are without access to the information highway.

West Virginia, he said, runs afoul with traditional communication companies’ business models of expanding service to more customers in more areas.

Burdette, a former small business owner, understands why Internet companies aren’t overly excited about bring broadband access to rural parts of the state.

“We aren’t a really good investment for shareholders,” he said. “We aren’t going to bring big returns on your investments.”

West Virginia also lacks flat land for development. Most companies are seeking acres and acres of flat land that is connected to cheap natural gas.

And flat land just isn’t in abundance in the Mountain State.

However, the state has identified 12,000 acres of land about 25 miles south of Charleston along Corridor G that is prime for a mega-industrial park.

Burdette said companies that need one acre or 1,000 acres will benefit from the industrial park.

Joyce McConnell, West Virginia University’s provost, said the need to transition from coal to a more diversified economy is more obvious than ever. When she recommended a center for energy and sustainable development eight years ago, the idea was not taken seriously.

Now, not only is it being discussed, but action is urgently needed, she said.