In Working Class Country, A Changing Economy Isn’t Pulling Everyone Along

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In this Thursday, May 12, 2016 photo, coal miner Scott Tiller takes shelter from the rain after coming out of an underground mine at the end of a shift in Welch, W.Va.

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Nestled in the rolling, green hills of Appalachia you’ll find the town of Bridgeport, West Virginia. Though many young people are leaving America’s rural areas for cities, this small town of 8,000 managed to attract 26-year-old Matthew McManus.

“This area is kind of different from the rest of the state because it’s a ‘high technology quarter,’” he says. “We have two major universities up here, NASA has a facility up here, the FBI has a large center, and there are several aerospace companies up here.”

A number of economic challenges exist for the people of Harrison County — a place identified by the American Communities Project as “Working Class Country.” Like other counties in “Working Class Country,” Harrison is 95 percent white and very rural. Per capita income sits at about $24,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and issues of employment and economic development are top of mind for people like McManus as the 2016 election approaches.

After trying his hand at a traditional college for a few years, McManus moved to Bridgeport in 2013 to attend a trade school, get certified as an airplane mechanic, and ultimately, find a job. Though he was able to quickly find work after his training, he’s something of an outlier.

“We do have a problem with retaining young people, particularly people my age,” he says. “People I went to college with, they got a four year degree and they did everything they were told they were supposed to. But they got out, and there’s not a job in their field, so either they have to move out of state to get their job, or start working in a field that doesn’t require their degree.”

The state offers a merit-based scholarship to encourage West Virginia high school students to attend college. The PROMISE program — which stands for Providing Real Opportunities for Maximizing In-State Student Excellence — provides eligible high school graduates with “annual awards up to $4,750 to cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees at public or independent institutions in West Virginia.”

Though McManus says he utilized the program, he argues the initiative ultimately misses the mark.

“The state started doing [this] scholarship program for high school kids — if you maintained a certain GPA, they’ll send you to college,” he says. “That was great, [the idea of], ‘We’re going to get an educated young workforce.’ But the problem is, you graduated all these kids with four-year degrees and there’s no jobs for them here.”

In recent years, some have been able to find jobs in the state’s evolving energy sector, but it doesn’t appear that such growth is sustainable.

“Locally, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the fracking boom and bust,” McManus says. “About five years ago, there was a huge influx of jobs with fracking, and oil and gas workers. [Companies] brought in guys from out of state and they employed a lot of guys locally. And that was great for a few years, but there are only so many wells that can be drilled and miles of pipeline that can be laid before a company has to start laying people off.”

Additionally, old industries like the state’s coal sector continue to shrink, which is causing concern for locals in Harrison County and beyond.

“There’s still 500 years of coal in these hills, but it’s not being mined as much as it was 10 or 20 years ago,” says McManus. “Places are shutting down, and for a lot of communities that’s the only thing that they have — the mine — and everything else is based off of that. That’s been devastating in many parts of the state. West Virginia has always had a history of extraction industries — mining, logging, and most recently oil and gas.”

Thousands of coal miners in West Virginia have been laid off since 2012, and the industry continues to struggle as the U.S. turns its attention to clean energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, domestic coal production hit a 35-year low in 2016.

“It’d be terrifying to live in a community your whole life and to work in a mine, and then it be closed — what do you do?” asks McManus. “We’re not giving these people a plan B. Coal companies are just up and leaving. They shut the doors, they move on, and everyone else still has to stay there. People need to realize coal isn’t going to be around forever, and that we need to do something to transition these people from working in coal to something better.”

McManus hopes that those in West Virginia’s “Working Class Country” — a county type that dominates the state — can diversify their economy for the modern era. To do so, he argues that the state should be encouraging young people like him to learn a trade.

“I think that’d do a lot more for them in our economy than having yet another four-year degree,” he says. “If we had a generation of skilled workers; people that learned trades — machinists, pipefitters, welders, electricians, engineers, and people that could actually produce things for the economy — I think that would encourage companies to invest in West Virginia.’”

Though McManus says it’s time to bring new industry to The Mountain State, he also thinks West Virginians should take lessons from days past.

“We used to have a lot of factories, steel mills, and industry manufacturing, and that’s kind of faded away over the last 10 or 20 years, and I think we need to bring some of that back,” he says. “My grandfather graduated high school and worked in an aluminum factory for his entire adult life, and he’s done very well for himself. But you can’t find jobs like that any more, and we need to bring that stuff back.”