The economic outlook for West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle over the next five years looks good according to West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
The state has added about 3,000 jobs since the middle of last year according to this year’s Outlook report. John Deskins, Bureau director, presented the outlook for the Eastern Panhandle to a ballroom full of business leaders from Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan Counties gathered at the Martinsburg Holiday Inn, beginning with a look at the statewide forecast.
”We’re predicting about one percent (job) growth going forward in the state for the next five years,” Deskins said. “That’s a little bit slower for the nation as a whole, though, we predict about 1.6 percent growth in the nation going forward.”
Deskins said the three Eastern Panhandle counties have rebounded from the recent recession. The area lost about 3,500 jobs during the recession, but has gained nearly 4,300 in the past three years.
“The Eastern Panhandle has been growing at a strong pace and the performance of the Eastern Panhandle economy has been by far one of the strongest parts of the overall West Virginia economy,” Deskins said. “This part of the state has really been driving economic growth for the state as a whole in many ways, the economy looks so good here and we expect that strong growth to continue, we expect the Eastern Panhandle to be one of the leaders for West Virginia as a whole.”
And Deskins said the unemployment rate is also moving in the right direction. According to the report unemployment in the Eastern Panhandle was 8.3 percent in 2009. It was down to 5.4 by the end of 2013, the lowest since 2008.
“That improvement in the unemployment rate isn’t all because of labor force attrition,” he said. “That improvement that we’re seeing and that we’re forecasting in unemployment is entirely because of job creation, it’s not because of people leaving the labor force.”
Deskins said the number of people in the labor force in the three counties has increased by more than 2,000 over the last few years, which he called positive.
One leading source of jobs is construction. The report says the single family home market is rebounding and construction projects like the Macy’s distribution center and a new high school in Berkeley County have bolstered the numbers. It predicts the construction sector will grow nine percent a year over the next five years.
The report also forecasts a three to four percent a year increase in high paying jobs in the professional, business services and information sectors. It predicts a slowdown in growth in the areas of government jobs and says competition from gambling in adjacent states could impact the leisure and hospitality industries.
The report also offers some observations about the demographics in the three counties. Deskins said overall, the population is younger than the state as a whole.
“Here in the Eastern Panhandle the median age is 39.4 years versus 41.7 for state as a whole, about two years on average people here are younger here in the Eastern Panhandle compared to West Virginia as a whole,” he said. “That’s good news for the economy going forward. And people here tend to have higher levels of educational attainment as well, more good news for the Eastern Panhandle.”
The report predicts the population in the Eastern Panhandle will continue to grow over the next five years at a rate of 1.7 percent a year; however the state overall is expected to see a population decrease during that time.