01 January, 2017

A Response To Dan McGinn's Washington Post / Charleston Gazette-Mail Article About West Virginia

Mr. McGinn:

Prior to your recent Washington Post / Charleston Gazette-Mail article one "community development" organization said all West Virginia needs is better media coverage and then cynically offered workshops on how to get it. Thank you for telling us the truth. But you didn't tell us the whole truth.  You did what so many of our politicians do: you told us we can’t attract outside investment without a skilled and educated workforce but you didn't tell us how to get that skilled, educated workforce. 

I’m talking about free college for every West Virginia high school grad – and so was West Virginia Center for Policy and Budget’s Ted Boettner when he told a tragically small audience that the revenue from the erstwhile franchise tax would have paid for it.

West Virginia is so far behind the places that attract employers that we need an educational moonshot. Incremental upgrades in West Virginia's workforce will not persuade hi-tech employers to open factories, offices, research centers and other facilities here. 

Due to West Virginia’s $400 million budget hole, it won’t happen during the 2017 legislative session, but here’s how West Virginians can demonstrate our willingness to help ourselves: First, our politicians can tell us that we will never get our share of the hi-tech and post-coal jobs until we radically increase the number of college grads in our workforce and that the logical way to do it is by becoming the first state in the country to offer free college to its high school grads. Think of it as an expansion of the Promise Scholarship, which doesn’t go far enough because it isn’t offered to enough students and it doesn’t completely cover the cost of attending college. The Promise Scholarship is the right medicine in too small a dosage to heal West Virginia's sick economy. West Virginia's Promise Scholarship is currently awarded to about 3,000 to 3,500 students annually at a cost of about $4,750 per student per year. That’s not nearly enough newly-minted college grads to get the attention of major employers.

Make it a STEM scholarship so we produce more “creative class” workers, not more poli-sci and English majors. I’m using the term “creative class” the way Dr. Richard Florida used it in his groundbreaking books, Rise Of The Creative Class and The Great Reset. The creative class are those workers whose skills are in such demand that employers open offices and build factories where those creatives already are.

Make recipients sign a contract with West Virginia promising to remain in West Virginia for at least 5 years after graduation.

If politicians will tell the truth about how to make West Virginia irresistible to outside investment, they may even find that West Virginia’s current handful of post-coal employers will help.

In 2008, some hi-tech Lexington, KY, employers asked Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry to create a public-private STEM scholarship plan so Lexington could grow it’s own creative class workforce. The problem? Companies like Lexmark, Cypress Semiconductor, IBM and Exstream couldn’t recruit the talent they needed to Lexington because these creative class workers didn’t want to live in the state of Kentucky. Mayor Newberry, a conservative Republican and not a big-government guy, took the idea to city council which foolishly and shortsightedly voted against it.

I think the average Lexington city council member saw the STEM scholarship plan as corporate welfare because the mayor and the hi-tech employers didn’t spend enough time educating them about Lexington’s recruitment disadvantage prior to the vote. Lexington was learning the hard way what “the creative class” is. It’s a class of worker who can live anywhere they want so they don’t have to live in places they perceive to be racist, insufficiently diverse, ignorant, opioid-addicted and indifferent to the environment.

Our political  leaders need to tell us the truth about the new job creation paradigm and educate citizens about how the economic development game has changed. Workers used to go where the jobs are. Now jobs go where the educated workers are. Creative class workers can go anywhere and they are congregating in places like Boston and Silicon Valley and Seattle and Portland and Austin. These creative class workers are magnets that attract hi-tech employers. 

“A problem named is a problem solved” said business consultant, Susan Scott in her book, Fierce Conversations. That dictum is usually accurate. Sick people are relieved to get a diagnosis because they know that if a disease has a name, doctors have seen it before and know what to do. Unfortunately, this dictum isn’t always true when it comes to matters of economic development and workforce development. It’s time for our politicians to connect the dots. A few of them have named the problem: West Virginia’s insufficient supply of educated workers. Now they must name the logical treatment: we have to pay what it takes to grow and retain our own creative class workforce made up of West Virginians who already love our state and would like to stay.

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