Efforts to train workers in West Virginia just got a big boost.
A coalition of West Virginia partners will leverage $62 million in funding from the United States Economic Development Administration, along with an additional $26 million in matching funding from non-federal sources. Governor Jim Justice’s administration also pledged $2 million.
All of this money will go to various projects in West Virginia coal communities, intended to alleviate economic hardship.
A large portion, $15 million, will be dedicated to workplace development initiatives. This includes training programs, job placement support and retention support for employers and employees.
This comes in a state where the labor force participation rate, while improving, is still just over 55%.
West Virginia officials have long worried that workers in the state are developing the kind of skills that can meet the demands of a modern economy.
In an announcement awarding the money on Friday, Sen. Joe Manchin told President Joe Biden that West Virginians have long felt left behind.
“My wonderful state and all the great workers and people in my state who have worked hard and are very proud, they have done the heavy lifting for years and years and years. And they never complained,” said Manchin, DW.Va. “And as things started to change and transition, they were left with nothing.”
Manchin said the money pouring into the coalfields, including for training and retention, will bring huge benefits.
“My concern right now is, do we have the manpower?” Manchin told a crowd that gathered in Charleston to celebrate what money can do. “How do we educate? How do we recruit all West Virginians and people who have family and friends who wish to return to West Virginia? That’s what it’s about.
Generation West Virginia, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to supporting the state’s youth, will spearhead the workforce development effort.
Partners in this effort include Coalfield Development, The Alliance for the Economic Development of Southern WV, High Rocks, and WVU’s Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative.
“It’s no surprise that West Virginia has historically had the lowest labor force participation rate in the country, and the reasons for this are complex,” said Alex Weld, executive director of Generation West. Virginia, speaking at a Great Grant announcement. “That means solving this problem is also complex.”
Generation West Virginia already has a workforce development effort, and the influx of money will help grow it.
The program includes an intensive six-month training to teach participants to code and become software developers. The effort translates into 100% job placement averaging $47,000 a year, Weld said.
Mentors, who are paid, help these newly trained participants navigate a professional work environment. This is intended to help support and retain workplace talent in the state.
Teaching coal miners to code is often a meme and a punchline. But this program is actually set up to produce coders from coal mining communities.
“You talk to some of the interns in our program and their lives have been transformed. It’s more than a meme to them. It’s a path to success for them,” Weld said in an interview. “They help land amazing jobs because we help create pathways for them.
“It can be people who, maybe their parents or grandparents were sometimes coal miners. We are still feeling the impact of the decline of the coal industry in West Virginia. So there are people now trying to figure out what now. The tech industry is thriving and growing, and we need to make sure West Virginians have access to these jobs.
Additional support will be provided by Workforce West Virginia, Appalachia Connect, The Hive, Advantage Valley, the WV Office of Energy and Mountwest Community College.
Overall, the initiative will serve a region of 21 southern West Virginia counties, with additional benefits statewide.
The money is coming to the Appalachian Climate Technology Coalition (ACT Now), led by Coalfield Development Corporation through Revitalization Grants.
The money comes from the Biden administration’s U.S. bailout and is administered by the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
“For decades, we’ve known that southern West Virginia’s economy needs diversification,” said Brandon Dennison, managing director of Coalfield Development.
“Some progress has been made on this goal, but not enough. ACT Now presents a tangible opportunity to take a big step forward in this generational challenge to become a vibrant, growing and diverse economy. In the wake of continued losses of coal jobs, nothing could be more important to our region.