Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Take me home, country roads. West Virginia (mountain mama)

US News recently came out with its rankings of the best states. Even if you can get beyond the utter idiocy of decreeing that any one state is the “best”, there’s the inevitable arbitrariness of the categories and the way in which the ratings are created. That said, the ratings were not entirely specious. After all, Massachusetts was named the best state. (New England, in general, punches above its weight. NH came in second, Vermont tenth, and Connecticut twelfth. Maine (18) and Rhode Island (21) also landed above the mean.) Massachusetts, for all its flaws – weather, cost of housing – ranks high in health, education, and the overall economy. So, we’re Number One, giving those in the other 49 states let another reason to confirms their opinion that we’re a bunch of Massholes. (Yeah, but we’re apparently well-educated and healthy Massholes, thank you.)

Massachusetts may not have been the overall intuitive pick for state greatness, but it’s not exactly a surprise that affluence, education, health, and welfare matter. Thus, it’s not exactly surprising to see the list of states trailing the pack. The only outlier in the bottom ten, populated largely by southern states, was New Mexico.

While it’s not dead last – that would be Louisiana – West Virginia placed in the 41st position.

These days, what with the promise of the return of coal mining jobs, West Virginia is much in the news and on the mind.

Some of that news was an article I saw last week in the Washington Post on the economic state of West Virginia – and the truth that those mining jobs won’t be coming back any time soon, even if the EPA is shut down and the mining companies are allowed to lop off mountain tops and power-flow effluents into the state’s rivers.

The article analyzed the make up of employment in West Virginia.

Most of the industries in West Virginia have added employees since 1990. This makes sense, given that the population of the state rose from 1990 to 2015, although by a modest 50,000 people. There’s broad variance across industries, though.

The biggest loss was in manufacturing, where the state lost 35,000 jobs. In mining, it shed about 13,000. But that was more than made up for by jobs in health care and social assistance. Those jobs increased by 60,000. Jobs in leisure and hospitality increased by 30,000. Those are giant shifts — and reflect similar shifts nationally.

Manufacturing made up 13.1 percent of jobs in West Virginia in 1990. In December, it made up 6.1 percent. Mining and logging jobs fell from 5.4 percent of state employment to 2.7 percent. Health care and social assistance jumped from 10 percent in 1990 — less than manufacturing — to 16.1 percent at the end of last year. Leisure and hospitality moved from 7.6 to 10 percent of the jobs in the state. (Source: Washington Post)

The article didn’t get into any WV vs. US comparisons, but this to me looks pretty much like what’s happened across the country over the last few decades. Most states never had the proportion of mining jobs that West Virginia had. Massachusetts grit job lore, for one, is Gloucester fisherman. It’s immigrant girl in the Lowell spinning mill. It’s not soot-faced miners dying of black lunch disease or getting crushed in cave-ins. But even though the proportion of miners in West Virginia in 1990 was far higher than it is today, it wasn’t al that high. (5.4%) 

But, somehow, during the election, the loss of coal mining jobs became the proxy for the swap out of “guy jobs” like coal mining and industrial manufacturing for softer (“girl jobs”) in services and tourism. And the fact that globalization and technology have upended the job scene, something that’s been going on for decades, not just for the past eight years.

In truth, there are ways in which states can transition to a more modern economy by replacing manufacturing (and coal-mining) jobs with better work in industries like technology, healthcare, and financial services. Massachusetts started doing this way back in the day, even before manufacturing jobs were being off-shored. When the textile and shoe mills went south in search of cheaper labor (mostl to states that appear regularly in the bottom 10 of best states lists), Massachusetts replaced those jobs with something better. Which is not to say that, for individuals, there was not plenty of dislocation. It’s just that, at the aggregate level, the state was better off. Much like the US economy is, in a macro sense, better off than it used to be. It’s just that, at the micro level, there are lot of people who are worse off under the new economic order than they were when they were risking life, lung, and limb to work in jobs like coal miner.

With automation, things may get worse before they get better for the little guy without much by way of skills, or for the white collar worker who’s not willing or able to continuously remake themselves to keep up. Just wait until all those autonomous trucks hit the highways. Or robots take over more construction jobs.

It ain’t going to be pretty.

But that’s all abstract.

We sure could use a national conversation about what people are going to do.

Unfortunately, this past election cycle, one side seemed to gloss oer the concerns and plight of those coal miners, while the other made ridiculous promises about the restoration of their jobs to the way things were in the glory days of John L. Lewis.

I’m sure if you live in (and love) West Virginia, it’s more John Denver singing, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” than it is “We’re #41!” But if West Virginia’s going to move up in those ridiculous rankings, it better start thinking beyond coal mining making a glorious reappearance.

1 comment:

Kathy Smith said...

Thanks for share the article
Thank you so much.