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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg got a friendly reception from residents in Wheeling recently. He was there to promote the Biden administration’s infrastructure law, enacted by Congress and signed by the president in 2021.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, along with the Inflation Reduction Act of last year and other programs are bringing a lot of federal dollars to places like Wheeling. The city is using a $16 million grant from the infrastructure law to improve its Main Street.
While the construction work was underway outside, Buttigieg spoke at a restaurant downtown.
“This infrastructure bill is so big in its proportions, it’s really testing the capacity of the United States,” he said. “And that’s true on everything from raw materials to workforce.”
After years of disinvestment, federal funds are coming to Appalachia.
The goal, say people familiar with Appalachia’s strengths and needs, isn’t simply to put people to work on jobs that have an expiration date. Rather, it’s to build skills that last a whole career.
“So they can hop from client to client to client and keep, you know, keep a continuous pipeline and flow of projects to where they can continuously employ and maintain their organization and grow exponentially,” said Jacob Hannah, chief conservation officer for Coalfield Development in Huntington.
His organization trains solar workers, often former coal miners. He expects the influx of federal dollars will create even more opportunities in solar in the region.
Some of those solar projects could be built on mine sites reclaimed with newly available federal dollars, including one in Hannah’s native Mingo County. It will provide 100 percent of the power the local high school needs.
“So we’re trying to help catch up the workforce to meet the demand of solar companies that are meeting the demand of this big funding opportunity that’s happening,” he said.
Gayle Manchin, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, said the infrastructure law has brought a wealth of new opportunity for the state and region.
Sometimes it only takes a little bit of retraining to build a workforce that’s ready for new jobs that are coming to Appalachia, she said, whether it’s aerospace or power plants fueled by hydrogen.
“Where they’re talking about coming in with hydrogen plants, they say that if you worked in a coal fired plant, then you would be able to work in a hydrogen plant – (the) skillsets are almost identical,” she said.
And from a regional perspective, Manchin said it’s OK for surrounding states to benefit from businesses expanding in West Virginia. Whether it’s the Nucor steel plant in Mason County or the Form Energy battery factory in Hancock County, the new plants in West Virginia may need workers from Kentucky, Ohio or Pennsylvania.
“That’s just my personal belief that it can’t just be a West Virginia project. It can’t just be West Virginia workers,” she said. “It’s got to be a regional development in which everyone has the opportunity to grow and benefit from this industry.”
But some observers are concerned that the workforce may not be ready, and the jobs may not sustain the people who need them the most.
Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who focuses on infrastructure’s economic role across different regions, said states may be tempted to put the cart before the horse when there’s a window of federal funding available.
“We have this gold rush mentality, nationally, where places are just like tripping over themselves trying to get to the buckets of federal money while they can, and kind of like, well, we’ll solve the workforce stuff when it comes to it,” he said.
For example, Kane said a local water utility might have five workers, and two or three are eligible to retire. Or, they might seek higher-paying jobs in other states. Losing 40 percent to 60 percent of your workforce at a time when federal money is flowing into water infrastructure isn’t ideal, he said.
“They’re not really stepping back to rethink their prevailing training and hiring and retention strategies,” Kane said.
Kane said states need to create a pipeline of skilled trades to do the work over the coming decades. That could be for initial construction or ongoing operations and maintenance.
“We need to create a talent pipeline,” he said. “The need is to have a bigger pool of talent, in general, even over the next five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years that all these employers can pull from.”
If the talent pool is too small, states risk competing with each other for a scarce resource.
“We’re going to compete against each other for those few people,” Kane said. “And then it’s kind of a race to the bottom where we can’t find people to do the work.”
It’s not just boots on the ground, Kane said. Some communities don’t have the people they need to write the grants to get the competitive funds in the first place.
“They’re sitting on over $100 billion in competitive grants that they can award places,” he said, “and the concerns I’ve heard from places is not even do they have the staff to do these projects, they don’t even have the grant writers to get those competitive grants or to apply for them.”
Manchin said you can’t just throw money at a city or a county government and expect them to know what to do with it.
“I think money just passed out without any structure or guidance can sometimes not be a blessing at all but be a hardship,” she said.
That’s part of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s modern mission. The agency was conceived by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House as a federal antipoverty program.
In the past, the ARC focused on hard infrastructure, such as a 3,000-mile network of improved highways in the region. (Decades later, it’s still under construction.) In more recent years, the ARC has turned its focus to human infrastructure: education, training, workforce development and entrepreneurship.
Kane said it won’t be enough to say you spent a certain amount of money to create a certain number of jobs. A true return on investment would be a build-out of durable skills that workers can use until they retire.
“Maybe people will get some jobs, but maybe the bigger point is the fact that they’re getting licenses and certifications and skills that allow them to do other sorts of work once that construction project ends?” Kane said. “I haven’t gotten a clear answer to that, which is concerning, because the money’s already going out there.”
Hannah said big, one-time projects can still deliver benefits to a region that’s been in distress.
“Those one off projects, they’re valuable, they’re beneficial, they’re not permanent, long term, but they help sort of get a shot in the arm, a jumpstart, you know, for a community in a region,” he said. “And then what we want to do is be able to place those folks into other opportunities that may be more long term and long lasting.”
Hannah said he’s optimistic about the federal funds that are available from several agencies. And that the federal government is making coal communities a priority for the investment.
“I think right now we’re at a very exciting time because the government is willing to invest in that experimentation period,” he said.
Hannah’s organization helped grow Solar Holler into the biggest solar installer in the region.
“You know, 10 years ago, there wasn’t even a solar installation company in our region,” he said. “And so we’re trying to catch up really quickly.”
Now there are six or seven solar companies in the region, Hannah said.
Still, Hannah said it’s a stretch to transform the workforce in just 10 years when the economy has been based on a single extractive industry – coal – for more than a century.
Coalfield Development is retraining out-of-work coal miners to work in solar. He said the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure law will spur even more development of solar and renewable energy, often on reclaimed mine or power plant sites.
This month, Coalfield Development is beginning a one-month training course to teach the basics of solar. Anyone can apply and each participant will receive a $2,000 stipend.
Solar jobs won’t replace coal jobs on a 1-to-1 basis, he said. West Virginia has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the country. It’s a challenge just to get people to go to work.
There’s no silver bullet, Hannah said, no ideal job creator to save West Virginia or Appalachia.
“It’s an uphill battle. It’s not an easy one,” he said. “And so we’re trying our best to feel those needs without trying to just rely upon outside forces and outside labor to come rescue the day, but to help incubate the people that have been left behind in those communities that we’re working directly with, and have them be the change agents and the owners of that change that’s happening.”
Solar Holler is an underwriter of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
This story is part of the series, “Help Wanted: Understanding West Virginia’s Labor Force.”