Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name,, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.

Blackout: Scenes from a Coal-Dependent Economy

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. 2016 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

One day Bill Thompson, 76, decided to just sit and wait by the front door of his Boone County home improvement store. Thompson bought Danville Lumber from his uncle after he left the Army in 1963. Business was strong back then. In the 1970s, the company had more than 70 employees on three shifts.

But this day, as Thompson waited by the front door, there were only about a dozen people on staff. The inventory that used to tally upwards of $1 million was down to about $200,000. And the phones that used to ring off the hook don’t ring as often anymore. Thompson sat and waited, and more than an hour passed before one customer walked through the door.

As the coal industry has declined, thousands of Boone County coal miners have found themselves without jobs. That drastically affects the demand for construction materials—folks who don’t have jobs don’t build houses. “And the ones that are working are afraid to spend money,” Thompson says. Most of Danville Lumber’s local sales are now for smaller stuff, emergency repairs. If a big order does arrive, it usually comes from Kanawha or Putnam County.

Danville Lumber used to offer customers in-house credit, but not anymore. “We’re scared to death they won’t pay us,” says Arthur “Cooter” Berry, Thompson’s son-in-law. “They’re going to pay the power bill before they pay us.”

Thompson and Berry understand what it’s like to have bills that are difficult to pay. In October 2014, Thompson realized the company could no longer afford to provide its employees with health insurance. He spent a week mulling the decision before finally telling employees. “I thought how many are going to quit today? I thought that would be the end of the company.” But to Thompson’s surprise, no one quit. “There’s no other jobs,” he says.

Danville Lumber has been in Thompson’s family since the 1920s. The business has weathered many ups and downs in the coal market, but Thompson says he has never seen times as bad as this. “It seems like everything in Boone County is going against you right now,” he says. “It’s a different world out here, and the public away from here doesn’t know that.”

* * *

Recent declines in the coal industry are wreaking havoc on West Virginia’s economy, especially in the southern part of the state.

The state produced 166 million short tons of coal in 2008, according to data compiled by the West Virginia Coal Association. By the end of 2014, production was down to around 117 million. The state has also seen massive layoffs during that time. In 2009, there were nearly 28,000 people working in mining jobs. That has fallen by 65 percent, with just 18,000 coal mine employees in 2014.

The slide in production and jobs can be attributed to four main factors: the ever-growing difficulty of mining coal in southern West Virginia, competition from cheap natural gas, tougher carbon emissions standards from the federal government, and a weak international export market.

These factors have been studied by economists and geologists and debated by politicians and lawyers, as they should be. But something that is often lost in those high-level conversations is the very real effect these declines have had in small communities all across West Virginia.
And nowhere has been more affected than Boone County.

* * *

In some ways West Virginia owes its coal industry to Boone County. It was here that, in 1742, European explorer John Peter Salley was exploring a tributary of the Kanawha River when he noticed a thick black seam running through the rocks along the river. Salley would dub the waterway “Coal River,” a name it still bears today.

Just like West Virginia as a whole, Boone County has based almost its entire economy on coal mining for a very long time. And for a very long time this made perfect sense because Boone County produced vastly more coal than anywhere else in the state. In 2008, the county mined 30.9 million short tons of coal. Its closest competitor, Mingo County, produced 11.9 million short tons that year.

As a result, the county government received lots and lots of money from coal severance taxes. In 2010 alone, Boone County received $5.3 million in severance taxes. The county commission used this money in myriad ways—including hiring college students for summer jobs at the courthouse, stocking rivers and streams with catfish and trout, paying for public transportation, and funding construction projects on county offices and parks.

But over the last few years coal severance monies have steadily declined, forcing the county to cut back. County Commissioner Mickey Brown says the summer job program ended around 2012. The county stopped stocking fish in 2014. In 2015, the commission dropped funding for public transportation and cut its contributions to local municipalities, the county health department, and the county parks and recreation department by 30 percent.

On January 30, 2016, the county will close its public dump, where many Boone County residents dispose of their household trash for free. The program cost about $1.2 million per year and was paid for entirely by coal severance taxes. Commissioners are also looking at ways to bring down the county’s $1 million jail bill using less expensive sentencing options like day report centers, home confinement, and drug court. Brown estimates this will save the county about $150,000. “We knew things were going down but we didn’t know how drastic it was going to be,” he says.

* * *

The lights are off in the front room of Bill Stone’s office in Danville. He sits behind the receptionist’s desk with a large cup of coffee and some store-bought muffins. He has Fox News on a small television screen but the sound is turned off.

Stone, 77, is dressed in hiking boots, pressed chinos, and a denim shirt with his company’s name embroidered on the left lapel: J&R Cable. He started working here in 1980 and bought the business from its original owners, J.R. Roger and Larry Javins, three years later. He never bothered to change the name, or even add his own initial. There wasn’t time.

The business provides industrial-grade cables to underground and surface mining operations. Since mines use a lot of power, they need a lot of heavy-duty cables. In the good years—basically anytime before 2008—J & R Cable serviced between 50 and 60 mines in a 150-mile radius from its Boone County headquarters. Now the company has about 10 clients.

At one time Stone employed 17 workers. Now there are just eight people, including him. As business has dried up, Stone has been forced to cut back on overtime. Three years ago, he cut his employees back to four days a week. That’s why the office is dark—his office staff is out on Fridays.

Stone says there isn’t any way to pivot the business, to find new clients for the service he offers. A few times a year he might get a call from a gravel pit or cement company, but those businesses don’t need nearly as much cabling as the mines.

Nearing his eighth decade, Stone would like to retire in the next few years. But even quitting might be difficult. “I don’t think this business will ever sell. It’s not feasible or practical.” He imagines the company will have to be liquidated, sold off piece by piece. He jokes he’ll turn the property into a bed and breakfast. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. They’ll be mining coal, but it won’t be like anything we’ve seen in the past.”

* * *

In a small cinderblock gymnasium, under humming lights, a crowd of about 90 people sat on folding chairs and plywood bleachers waiting for a meeting to begin. Members of the Boone County Board of Education and school system administrators sat at a long table at the front on the room.

Off to the side was a large projection screen showing a PowerPoint presentation with an unwieldy title: “Reasons and Supporting Data Required for the Closure of Nellis Elementary school and the Consolidation of Nellis Elementary with Ashford-Rumble Elementary.”

Boone County Schools had three of these meetings in fall 2015, one for each of the three elementary schools that will permanently close once this school year ends. It’s not uncommon for counties to close schools but usually when that happens students are moved into larger, newer, nicer schools. Not here. Students at the three closing schools will just be sent to three other small elementary schools.

It’s a drastic cost-saving maneuver, but a necessary one when you look at the school system’s budget. The county’s student population fell from 4,599 in the 2013-14 school year to 4,331 in 2014-15, leading to a $1.2 million cut in state Department of Education funding. Then in October, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called for a 1 percent cut in state aid to schools. That cost Boone County $176,000.

But worst of all, the county’s property tax income has taken a major hit. Collections fell by $2.2 million between the 2014 and 2015 budget years. During the first four months of the 2016 budget year, property tax revenue was $4.8 million lower than it was the year before.

The school system had only one option to make up the shortfall—deep budget cuts. “We tried our best not to touch our schools,” Superintendent John Hudson says. The school board cut operation costs, eliminated 37 positions in middle and high schools, as well as five positions at the central office. That amounted to $2.6 million, but it wasn’t enough.

Closing the elementary schools is expected to save around $1.8 million. Hudson figures he will have to find an additional $1.6 million in cuts just to balance next year’s budget. “People say, ‘Do something else.’ Well, what is the something else?” he says.

All West Virginia schools receive money from the state Department of Education according to the size of their student populations. Many counties supplement that income using property taxes, collected through regular and excess levies. For a long time schools in the southern part of the state greatly benefited from these levies, because they were able to collect property taxes from coal mining operations.

During the industry’s salad days, Boone County Schools were able to hire as many as 130 more employees than state education funding allowed, based on that property tax money alone. “We had that luxury,” Hudson says.

Now things are heading in the opposite direction. “When you see companies going out of business, that affects our tax collections,” Hudson says. He sees the evidence every time he leaves his Madison office and drives on West Virginia Route 85 toward Van High School, or State Route 3 toward Sherman High School in Seth—big pieces of machinery being hauled away on the backs of trucks. With each one that crosses the county line, Boone County Schools loses a little more money.

The economic realities of the situation provided little comfort to the parents, teachers, and community members for at the consolidation meeting at Nellis Elementary, however. Some parents begged—and some demanded—board members find other ways to save money. “Give yourself a pay cut,” said Sandra Evans, whose grown children once attended Nellis.

Robert Blaylock, a parent, suggested cutting one of the system’s two assistant superintendents. “You’re taking the heart plumb out of this community,” he said. Kim Lay, who has taught at Nellis for 10 years, asked if the board was going to let “the almighty dollar” cloud their judgment. “Cuts need to start from the top. Not our children. Not our future.”

* * *

Christina Adams spent more than 20 years in the classroom, including 10 years teaching kindergarten, before she became principal of Wharton Elementary three years ago. “I just felt like I was ready for that challenge,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference. A big picture difference.” She says she cried for a week when she found out Wharton would soon close its doors for good.

With three fewer schools to staff, Boone County will likely lay off many teachers and service workers, although it’s still unclear how many layoffs will be necessary. Adams will have a job next year—she has over 25 years seniority with the school system—but it’s doubtful she will be able to find another principal position. “Change is good because it keeps you on your toes, but I haven’t got comfortable enough in this job to be ready for that change yet,” she says.

It hasn’t been an easy couple years for Adams’ family. Her husband worked for Patriot Coal and was laid off for three months in 2014 before going back to work for about a year. He was laid off again in March 2015. “We saw the handwriting on the wall and decided we’ve got to have a plan B,” Adams says.

Her husband had been making extra money by running heavy machinery. He decided in July 2015 to make that his full-time job. Business is doing “fairly well,” Adams says, but she doesn’t know what will happen if the venture doesn’t work out. “There’s no plan C. Plan C might be to move out of state—although that’s not what we want to do.”

Adams has seen many families in her school face similar decisions. When she first took the job, Wharton had 124 students. Now the school has 96. “A lot of them, parents come in and say we’re leaving the area. I’m going out west, I’ve got a job, I’m taking my family and going.”

* * *

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to pinpoint ways Boone County might have avoided its current financial turmoil. The school system could have consolidated some of its elementary schools years ago to avoid having to shutter three schools at once. The county commission could have depended less on coal severance money to fund services. Leaders could have put more emphasis on diversifying the economy, creating more opportunities at home for young people.

But it’s also easy to see why none of those things occurred. “We were so spoiled by coal and what it was doing for us we were never able to bring in another industry,” says Bill Stone at J & R Cable.

There are a few reasons to be hopeful about the coal business. “Some doomsday people are saying coal is going to go to zero. That is absolutely not true,” says John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Deskins’ office released a report last year predicting coal production will drop to 98 million short tons in 2016 but rise to about 105 million tons in 2020. Rising natural gas prices, a continued demand for coal in the steel industry, and a healthy international export market will fuel this resurgence, Deskins and his team believe.

But what happens from there? In the worst-case scenario, annual production could fall to 80 million short tons by 2035 if the government imposes strict carbon-cutting environmental regulations, Deskins says.
In the best-case scenario, a growing global economy will drive up the demand for both steel and coal.

This will not be enough to completely revive the industry, however. “We don’t expect anything like we saw even a decade ago,” Deskins says. “Best case scenario, coal may go back to 110 or 115 million (short tons per year), and that’s still a big drop.”

Which scenario is more likely? It doesn’t really matter. Even in the most optimistic future, West Virginia’s coal production will still only be a fraction of its heyday. Which means, at least for the foreseeable future, the people of Boone County and the rest of southern West Virginia will continue to face some very difficult choices.

* * *

About a month before their ninth wedding anniversary in October 2015, Brittany and Derek Chase packed up their three children in the family minivan and made the ten-hour drive from their home in Boone County to an apartment in Bristol, Connecticut. They stayed there for two months before moving again, this time to Hazelton, Pennsylvania. They will probably move again in a couple more months—Brittany hopes to somewhere warmer.

The Chase family has adopted this nomadic lifestyle because of Brittany’s new job. She is a travel nurse, transferring between hospitals every few months, wherever there’s a shortage of help. It’s a career move she has wanted to make for a long time but Derek was always hesitant. “We’d talked about it before but we didn’t do it. I still had a job and I didn’t want to pick up and move,” he says.

His hesitation waned once his employer Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy. Sensing layoffs in the near future, Derek applied for a job with CSX. He got the job, but the railroad kept pushing back his training—first it was scheduled to begin in July, then August or September, and then it was canceled altogether. CSX is having financial difficulties of its own, partially because of the lack of coal being shipped on the rails.

The family decided it was time for a change. Brittany hired on with a travel nursing agency and they headed for New England. It was excellent timing. Just two months after they arrived, Patriot laid off 1,900 workers in Boone and Kanawha counties, including Derek’s former coworkers.

Their new life in New England has been an adjustment. Brittany is now the family’s sole breadwinner. Instead of going off to work, Derek now spends his days homeschooling the kids while trying to finish his bachelor’s degree online through Marshall University.

Their children—Rylee Jo, 2, five-year-old Jackson, 5, and Brooklyn, 7—are adjusting well, making new friends in each new place. “They think it’s the best thing ever,” Brittany says. But after the family returned from a trip back to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, they started asking why they couldn’t go “home.”

For Brittany, missing home is mostly about missing her mom. “Every time I talk on the phone with her, she cries,” she says. “I feel like I’ve broken my mom’s heart.”

Speed Limits

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Patrecia Gray’s home is tucked away up a narrow hollow in Mason County. She bought the property in the 1970s with her husband, partly because it reminded her of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek. “We were just going to rough it, and we found out how rough it is.” The property is connected to the outside world by a gravel road. It’s a source of constant consternation for Gray. The gravel often washes out when it rains. State workers come and repair it, but the fix is always the same: more gravel dumped in the road to be washed away when the next downpour arrives.

From a purely economic point of view, the state’s strategy is simple. There are only a few homes in Gray’s hollow and gravel is pretty cheap, so it doesn’t make much sense to spend lots of money paving the road. But economics do little to ease Gray’s mind. After all, she’s the one who gets stuck when the road washes out.

Gray’s other connection to the outside world, her Internet connection, is similarly fraught. Although she only lives about a dozen miles from Point Pleasant, she’s too far into the country to join the cable company’s network. She used a dial-up connection for a long time, longer than most other Internet users, but ultimately found it to be too slow and unreliable.

For a while Gray hoped Frontier Communications would bring its highspeed DSL broadband through her phone lines, but the company eventually decided against it. You can probably guess why. It’s the same reason the state won’t pave her road—too few beneficiaries for too large an investment. “They just say we’re on the end of the line here,” Gray says.

She now uses Frontier’s satellite Internet service. While much faster and more reliable than dial-up, it still has some drawbacks. Gray gets a limited amount of bandwidth each month and if she exceeds that amount, as she often does, the speed of her connection drops way down.

Gray is no super-user. She relies on the Internet for the same things as most of the rest of us—email, web browsing, keeping track of family members on Facebook, and watching videos on YouTube. Her husband is a teacher and mostly uses the connection for work, making lesson plans and remotely accessing his school’s network to update students’ grades. But many times, the connection is just too slow and he gets frustrated. “There’s been times he just shuts it down,” Gray says. Frustrating as it might be, the couple has come to terms with their slow connection. “It’s like a bad tooth,” she says. “If you can’t get it pulled, you just learn to live with it.”

Lots of West Virginians find themselves in similar situations. While about 90 percent of state residents have access to hardwired Internet connections in their homes, the Federal Communications Commission says the majority of those connections are much too slow. Since 2010 the FCC defined “broadband” as Internet connections with download speeds of four megabits per second and upload speeds of one megabit. That’s comparable to using a smartphone connected to a 4G wireless network—just fine for most Internet activities like web browsing, checking email, and basic video streaming. But as technology has advanced and more Internet-enabled devices have entered the home, the FCC announced in January its four-megabit standard was “dated and inadequate.” Now the agency requires speeds six times faster than the old benchmark—25 megabits per second—before a connection can be considered “broadband.”

According to that new definition, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for overall broadband access. More than half of the state’s residents do not have access to broadband Internet. Only Arkansas, Vermont, and Montana rank worse. West Virginia’s urbanites fare better than rural residents. Only a third of city dwellers do not have broadband access, according to the new FCC definition. It’s a much different story for the state’s rural communities, however—three-quarters of those residents do not have adequate Internet speeds. These statistics are far worse than the norm. Nationwide, eight percent of urban residents and a little more than half of rural Americans lack access to broadband that meets federal requirements.

Many state leaders worry West Virginia’s lack of access will hold back our economic growth. “You can’t transition if you don’t have this tool.” says U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who has declared broadband expansion as one of her top priorities in Congress. “Everyone wants sewer, water, and transportation, but if you don’t have the ability to transmit designs if you’re an engineer, or transmit photographs if you’re a photographer, you’re really hemmed in.”

It’s an important, complex issue that lots of people are hoping to solve. But in the last year, two potential paths forward have appeared. One aims to increase the number of Internet service providers (ISPs) in the state, hoping increased competition will drive providers to expand their networks. The other approach, favored by the state’s largest Internet provider, aims to stretch service to the outer edges of the existing network.

Each approach has its fans and its detractors.

Slow Traffic Ahead

Before we begin talking about those possible solutions, however, it’s important to understand how the Internet works. Think of it like a giant highway system made of wires. All your news stories, Facebook posts, and Netflix movies are carried down this highway in packets, like millions of tiny trucks. These packets ride on “core networks” that run between large cities, like major interstates. Each of these cities have off-ramps known as “carrier hotels,” where your local ISP taps into the core network.

Your packets leave the interstate, take one of these offramps, and turn onto your ISP’s “middle mile” network. This would be the equivalent of state roads in our analogy. This collection of wires carries the data to intersections connected to smaller roads. These “last mile” connections make up the final leg of the journey, like a county route, delivering data to your home or business.

West Virginia’s broadband speeds are slow because some of our “local roads” have very low speed limits. The core networks and middle mile networks are pretty fast—they’re strung together with fiber optic cable, which transmits data using waves of light. Data can travel on these wires as fast as an ISP’s servers will allow, since nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Things begin to fall apart as we get closer home, however. In West Virginia, the last mile connections are almost always made of copper. These are the telephone lines or coax cables that deliver the Internet to your house. Copper wires transmit data through electrical currents that, unlike light, get weaker over long distances. That means ISPs have to use repeater stations, which recharge the data so it can continue on its way. The farther customers live from an ISP’s repeater station, the slower their connections go. Many customers, like Patrecia Gray, live so far away the connection will not work at all.

To see significant increases in Internet speeds, West Virginia would have to beef up its Internet infrastructure. That could mean more copper wire and repeater stations. Or, if we are truly forward thinking, fiber connections extended to homes. A few things hold this progress back, however. West Virginia’s geography is so challenging and our tiny population is so spread out, it would take a lot of time and money to expand and upgrade the network. And if there’s one thing our state lacks at the moment, it’s money.

One young state lawmaker believes he has figured out a solution to this dilemma.

The Middle Mile

About halfway through the 2015 legislative session, state Senator Chris Walters introduced a bill to construct a new 2,500-mile fiber network with tendrils stretching to every corner of the state, at an estimated cost of up to $72 million. Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.

Walters says a state-owned middle mile would increase Internet speeds while also keeping costs down for subscribers. Right now large ISPs are the only ones with middle mile lines. Since they own these networks, they can charge smaller ISPs whatever they like for access. This reduces competition, Walters says, which reduces companies’ incentives to cut subscriber costs or increase speeds.

He believes a state-owned middle mile would level the playing field and increase competition, which would result in fast, cheap Internet. Walters hopes this would encourage more businesses to open in West Virginia. In fact, an economic impact study produced by West Virginia State University estimates the fiber line would create 4,000 permanent jobs and add more than $900 million to the state’s gross domestic product in just the first year after its completion.

Walters’ bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature this year, however. It passed the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee—which Walters runs—only to die in the Senate Finance Committee amid a logjam of other legislation. But its author is not deterred. He believes the legislation stands a much better chance of passing in 2016 and plans to introduce the bill as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January.

He has spent the last year lobbying fellow lawmakers—Senate President Bill Cole even referenced expanding broadband when he launched his gubernatorial campaign in June—and building a “ground game” with like-minded organizations. “We have a groundswell,” Walters says. “This is our generation’s interstate system. It’s just as important. If you don’t have an interstate of fiber to get there, building the off-ramps is impossible.”

Walters’ “middle mile” bill will be one of Generation West Virginia’s top legislative priorities in 2016, says Executive Director Natalie Roper. “This isn’t about Netflix. It’s so much more than that,” Roper says. “It’s really about business and economic revitalization. We can’t think of anything more fundamental to attract the next generation.” Without modern, high-speed Internet connections, she says, the state’s economy cannot move forward. “Broadband is everything. It’s critical infrastructure just like highways and water and sewage.”

Both Walters and Roper admit Internet service providers have trouble justifying investments to connect the state’s most rural citizens. It’s an expensive undertaking, with not much initial return on investment. “This is why we need a state investment,” Roper says. “If it doesn’t make sense for private companies to create this infrastructure, we need the state to come in and provide that valuable investment.”

The Last Mile

Not everyone likes Walters’ plan, however. “Spending time and public money on things that are already there doesn’t make much sense,” says Andy Malinoski, spokesman for Frontier Communications, the largest ISP in the state. While Walters’s bill would spend the state’s money to build a new middle mile network, Malinoski says the work has already been done. Frontier, along with other large ISPs, already have high-speed fiber lines running all throughout the state. “That would be like creating another four lane up to Morgantown,” he says.

Malinoski says West Virginia’s Internet connections are plenty fast, even though the FCC’s new broadband definition conveys a much bleaker—and, in Frontier’s mind, skewed—picture of Internet access in the state. While many residents do not have 25 megabit access, Malinoski says most households don’t need or even want the service. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai agrees. In a dissenting statement released alongside the agency’s new broadband definitions earlier this year, Pai says most consumers are perfectly happy with slower speeds. “Seventy-one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 (megabit) service—over 70 million households—chose not to,” he says.

Malinoski questions the purported economic benefits of Walters’ project. He says access to super-fast Internet service is not enough, in itself, to spur business growth. “There are other factors as to why people relocate to West Virginia,” he says.

Frontier does acknowledge that many areas of the state still have difficulty connecting to the Internet, let alone accessing broadbandtier speeds. But Malinoski says a new middle mile network will not help West Virginia improve its access rankings. Smaller ISPs might use the network to expand to some residential customers, he says, but will not spend money to connect the farthest hills and hollows— leaving Frontier to pick up the slack. “The rest of rural West Virginia, we’re still going to be out there trying to connect them.”

Taxpayers would be better served, Frontier says, if the state focused its investments on the wires that connect the middle mile to customers’ homes. Over the last five years Frontier has invested $460 million of its own money—plus about $60 million in federal grants—to upgrade its network. That includes extending access to nearly 190,000 state households that previously did not have connections. Last month, the company introduced 24 gigabit service to Hinton. “The mission of Frontier is to connect rural America. Where we’re taking our investment is that last mile,” Malinoski says.

The company’s distaste for Walters’ plan is understandable, since the state-run middle mile is designed to create more competition for Frontier and other large ISPs. As it stands now, these companies own the middle mile and have complete control over who uses it. This has recently caused some controversy in our state, however.

Last year, the Bridgeport-based ISP Citynet wanted to extend broadband service to Snowshoe Mountain and asked to lease Frontier’s fiber middle mile to get there. Frontier agreed, but wanted $2 million a year for access to the line. Malinoski says his company thought that was a fair price—after all, Frontier paid for the line and is responsible for the network’s upkeep. But Citynet balked. Rather than pay Frontier’s annual fee, the company opted to build its own line to Snowshoe using rights of way along the tracks at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park—for $820,000.

Also last year, Citynet asked to lease Frontier’s unused “dark fiber” lines. These lines—connecting Clarksburg with Elkins, Philippi, and Buckhannon—were already in the ground but are not currently in use. Frontier denied the request, and Citynet filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission. In July, a judge recommended the PSC require Frontier to give Citynet access to the unused lines, based on a decade-old agreement Citynet had with Frontier’s predecessor Verizon. Frontier has since filed an appeal over the judge’s recommendation, arguing it should not be forced to help its competitors, and that Citynet has no right to the fiber.

As this issue goes to press, the PSC has not made a final decision on the matter. But for Citynet CEO Jim Martin, the issue is simple. “They control the middle mile, the highways in and out of these markets. They make the price so high, it’s a barrier for anybody to get into those markets,” he says. “And guess what? There’s no other option.”

Others argue Frontier is well within its rights to limit access to its privately owned middle mile. Elaine Harris, lobbyist for the Communication Workers of America, served on the now-defunct West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, which gave grants to ISPs to expand Internet access in the state. She says companies like Frontier have made significant investments in the state’s broadband infrastructure and should be allowed to use the fruits of those investments as they see fit.

Harris, whose union represents many Frontier workers, also worries a state-owned, state-run middle mile like Senator Walters proposes might discourage future investments. She thinks it would give small ISPs an unfair advantage. “There has got to be some skin in the game. There has to be,” she says.

Miles to Go

No matter which solution the state adopts to solve its broadband connectivity issues—whether it’s a new middle mile, as Walters wants, or increased investment in the last mile, as Frontier wants—residents’ access to high-speed broadband Internet will ultimately depend on the same forces that keep Patrecia Gray’s gravel road unpaved. Simple economics. For all the efforts to improve and expand broadband access, there are communities in this state so small and far removed it will never make economic sense for any company, large or small, to run provide service there.

There is one surefire way to ensure everyone has access, however: Turn broadband into a public utility. After all, that’s the way rural America received electricity in the early 20th century. By allowing ISPs to become government-approved monopolies, the companies could invest in their infrastructure without any concerns about competition. In return, government agencies could control Internet costs and require providers to meet certain coverage benchmarks.

This will likely never come to pass. Internet service providers certainly do not want to be regulated by the government, no matter the benefits. Competition-minded politicians like state Senator Walters and U.S. Senator Capito don’t want it either. And although it appears some FCC commissioners may be interested in making broadband a lightly regulated utility, no one at the agency seems to intend the Internet be regulated as stringently as electricity, natural gas, water, or railroads.

Whether we invest in middle mile or last mile, for the foreseeable future economics will continue to reign. And some roads, it seems, may never be paved.

Mind the Gap

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

The great virtue of West Virginia workers was never that they were the smartest in the world—although they have proven to be plenty smart. West Virginia workers also never claimed to possess superior strength, although their backs were always strong enough to complete the task at hand.

No, this state’s badge of honor has always been our commitment to hard work. West Virginians will take the jobs nobody else wants, stay late, come in on weekends, put in as many hours as necessary until the work is done. There may be others just as smart or just as strong, but nobody works harder than the West Virginian.

Or so we’d like to believe.

When Rebecca Randolph became the president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in 2013, she spent some time visiting member companies, educating herself on issues facing industry. She learned companies often have difficulty filling open positions. But the problem wasn’t the number of applications. Rather, it was the quality of the applicants. Employers often receive a glut of responses after posting an opening, but only a fraction of the applicants meet even the basic requirements for employment. “They will have to look at 150 candidates and pare that down to 75, just to get 35,” Randolph says.

Although there is a shortage of “hard skills”—Randolph says companies have a difficult time getting applicants with solid math, reading, and problem-solving skills—they are more troubled by the lack of “soft skills” like showing up to work on time, putting in a full shift, and being able to pass a drug test.

Joe Eddy is the president and CEO of Eagle Manufacturing in Wellsburg. His company makes more than 1,000 industrial safety and hazardous material handling products. The plant employs 185 people. When a job opens up, applications flood in. Eddy has 600 to 800 resumes on file at any given time and interviews about 10 people for every job. It’s always difficult to find machinists and welders, as well as higher-skilled employees like engineers. But even when applicants have all the necessary skills, Eddy says they still might not work out.

A worker can possess all kinds of knowledge and skills, but Eddy says that’s not worth much if he doesn’t show up on time and pull his weight. “Employers care also about you having responsibility, reliability, accountability, and adaptability,” he says.

Randolph says workforce availability is one of the top concerns of businesses looking to move into the state. West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette agrees. He says years ago, companies looking to set up shop in the Mountain State asked questions about the state’s taxes and worker’s compensation system. Not anymore. Nowadays they are worried about finding enough quality employees.

Worries About Tomorrow’s Worker
In February, Procter & Gamble announced it would build a $500 million plant in Berkeley County. Burdette says as state leaders courted the multinational consumer goods manufacturer, company executives had one major concern. “They liked our location, they like our property, they like our government. They were concerned they could not find and develop a workforce,” he says.

Burdette disagrees with Randolph that West Virginia is currently facing a worker shortage. “I don’t have any problem going to a company and saying ‘Come to West Virginia and we’ll find you a workforce.’” The state won the P&G factory, after all. What Burdette is more concerned about—and says potential employers are, too—is the workforce of tomorrow and whether it will be up to the job.

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring in droves, leaving in their wake an unprecedented number of job vacancies. It’s an issue all industries are grappling with, from education to healthcare to manufacturing. And while that seems like good news for younger generations, employers are worried the new batch of workers won’t have the skills necessary to fill their predecessors’ shoes.

According to a study by the ManPowerGroup, which included 37,000 employers in 42 countries and territories, companies said 19 percent of positions remained vacant because applicants did not possess adequate soft skills.

So, what happened to our soft skills? Nobody seems to know. Of all the government, education, and industry sources interviewed for this story, no one could even hazard a guess. It just seems that, at some point, children knew hard work was expected. And then, at some later point, children lost that seemingly inborn knowledge.

We could probably blame the Internet, or reality television shows, or smartphones, or gluten-free diets. But if we’re honest, nothing is to blame, because everything is to blame. “We probably took a lot of things for granted over the years,” Burdette says.

There is one thing of which we can be certain, however. If West Virginians are no longer born with work ethic, we have to find a way to get it to them. “It’s going to be difficult to diversify any part of the state if we do not have a skilled workforce to match it,” Burdette says.

And here’s the good news: We already have people working to solve this problem.

Learning to Work
Skills-08Kathy D’Antoni has racked up more than 112,000 miles on her three-year-old Acura, mostly from driving to career and technical schools around the state. “We’ve got some fantastic career and technical schools, and we have some that need help.” And D’Antoni, the West Virginia Department of Education’s Chief Career and Technical Education Officer, is here to help.

Career and technical schools—what used to be called “vocational” or “vo-tech” schools—have traditionally focused on teaching students trades. You learn to weld in welding class. If you take auto repair, you learn to work on cars. But as D’Antoni talked with industry officials over the years, she learned companies were looking for something more than just a set of skills.

“They were absolutely screaming, ‘Have them show up on time, drug free, and give me a full day’s work, and we’ll train them,’” she says. So D’Antoni began to develop a program that would teach West Virginia’s students not just how to do a job, but also how to work.

The result is a program called “Simulated Workplace.” D’Antoni invited West Virginia Focus to Mingo Central High School to see it in action. When students arrive in the morning, they slide their thumbs over a fingerprint scanner to “clock in.” Classes are not called “classes.” Rather, students work for “companies,” each with an official-sounding name chosen by the “employees.”

At Mingo Central, students dubbed the carpentry class “King Coal Construction.” Engineering students call their class “Appalachian Engineering.” Welding students named their company “Mountaintop Metal.” Each company also has its own uniform, which the school purchased with money from the state education department.

Students in the graphic design class—named “smART Design”— wear black shirts with lime green suspenders and bowties. In the auto shop, called “Mountaintop Repair Shop,” students wear twotone mechanic shirts with the company logo embroidered on the lapel. Welding students wear green overalls.

Simulated Workplace is more than just a game of dress-up, however. It is changing the way technical education is delivered in West Virginia. Instead of formal lessons, classes are based around projects. Students learn by doing, and the progress of the class largely relies on students’ motivation. But, just like in the real world, there are consequences for missing work, slacking off, or acting up. Students can’t be fired—but their grades will suffer.

Marcella Charles, Mingo Central’s career and technical education administrator, says both attendance and student behavior have improved dramatically since Simulated Workforce came to the school three years ago. “It’s working. It really is,” she says. “I just see more ownership in the students.”

D’Antoni admits the program can be difficult for longtime educators. Teachers have to cede some control in the classroom. Instead of functioning like micromanaging bosses, they become professional development coordinators, teaching students the skills they need to accomplish the task at hand.

Engineering teacher Tom Bane says he was initially skeptical about the program. Sure, he reasoned, Simulated Workplace might be important for welding or HVAC students, but his pupils were headed to four-year engineering programs after high school. It didn’t take long before Bane became a believer, however. “Even engineers need those soft skills. We think just because they’re college-bound, we don’t need to teach them those skills,” he says.

Simulated Workplace started in 30 technical school classrooms across the state in 2012. It grew to 220 classrooms the next year, and there were 570 Simulated Workplace programs in operation during the 2014-15 school year. Starting this fall, it’s going statewide. “There will not be a career-technical classroom in West Virginia that’s not Simulated Workplace,” D’Antoni says.

The program is gaining attention far outside West Virginia, too. Educators from eight states have visited to see Simulated Workplace in action, and Australia is currently running three pilot programs based on Simulated Workplace, with plans to go nationwide.

A group of teachers from North Carolina visited Mingo Central the same day West Virginia Focus took a tour of the school. Herman Locklear, career and technical education director for Robeson County Schools in North Carolina, says his district was already developing a program similar to Simulated Workplace. “Every industry tells the same story, ‘We need people who can come to work and be willing to work,’” he says.

But last year, some teachers from Locklear’s district heard D’Antoni at a conference in Alabama. They called him right away. ‘They said ‘This is what we need,’” he says. The school system plans to launch a Simulated Workplace program in the fall.

Train Them If You’ve Got Them
Once students attain the necessary soft skills, employers are often ready to help them get the “hard skills” they need. Companies, especially those in the manufacturing sector, are increasingly willing to train people for jobs as long as the employees demonstrate a willingness to work.

Dennis Dunbar, a skilled team leader at Toyota’s engine and transmission plant in Buffalo, says the company experimented with hiring out-of-state workers when it could not find enough highly skilled workers in West Virginia. The plan backfired, however. Despite offering signing bonuses and covering relocation costs, the plant found most of the workers didn’t stick around long. “It was a culture shock to some people to move to West Virginia. Buffalo, West Virginia is not Detroit, Michigan,” he says. “That was a big expense with no long-term gain.”

So Toyota focused instead on recruiting and training a group of people who love living in West Virginia—native West Virginians. In 2012, the Toyota factory launched a new program with BridgeValley Community and Technical College to train students for highly technical manufacturing jobs. Students in the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program spend two days per week in the classroom and three days a week on the factory floor at Toyota. By the end of the program, students will have earned an associate’s degree—and more than $40,000.

Toyota has high standards for the students. They are required to maintain a C average in every class, keep near-perfect attendance, and work at the plant for 24 hours each week. By the end of the program’s first semester, the original pool of 17 candidates was down to just nine people. But Toyota has good reason to weed out the less-motivated students.

That initial class recently graduated, and four of the students now have full-time jobs at the automotive plant. “They show up to work every day, they’re well motivated, they work well with others. You can’t get that in an hour interview with someone,” Dunbar says. “It’s much easier to offer a job to a known quantity.”

Buffalo was the second Toyota plant to begin an on-the-job training program—the original started in Georgetown, Kentucky two years earlier. By the end of this summer, the company will have similar programs at 12 of its manufacturing facilities in North America. The car manufacturer hopes to eventually fill all its job openings with graduates of the program. “Just from the comfort of knowing the attitude, attendance, and ethics of a person,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar says he would like to see other companies adopt similar training programs. “It’s working for us. I feel sure it will work for other manufacturers,” he says. “Look what you get out of it. You get highly skilled graduates. You’ve molded that product. You’ve instilled proper thinking. I’m totally sold on it.”

The train-your-own-workers philosophy can work for small companies, too. When Josh Dodd and his business partner Megan Bullock started their graphic design and web development company MESH in October 2009, they made what seemed like a logical hiring decision: They hired computer programmers to program computers.

It turned out to be a bad choice, for a few reasons. First, Dodd says university computer science programs are more focused on backend programming—the behind-the-scenes operations of computer systems. Students don’t get much training to handle front-end programming tasks like website development. Programmers might understand the code, but that doesn’t mean they know how to create a pleasing user experience. “With web, you have to understand usability,” Dodd says.

But worse than that, the coders Bullock and Dodd hired did not play nicely with others—an essential skill when collaborating with multiple people on a project. So over time, the pair decided to approach hiring in a different way.

Now when the company goes looking for a developer, Dodd says he’s not too concerned about candidates’ work histories or educational backgrounds. They need to know how to code, obviously, but it’s also important they are smart, willing to learn, and work well with others. “You can be a really good web developer without having a computer science degree. It’s not always about the skillset,” Dodd says. “We can provide the training. It’s about the attitude.”

Joe Eddy at Eagle Manufacturing says his company is also relying more on in-house training. He has the same problem Toyota did. When he has been able to convince out-of-state workers to move to West Virginia for jobs, it was seldom a longterm arrangement. “I haven’t been able to keep people here.”

Skills-05Now Eddy is taking employees with proven work ethic and training them to fill empty positions. “We can train you, and you can do a job and work here forever,” he says. About 10 years ago, he hired two brothers, Billy and Matt Matteson, to work in his plant’s plastics processing division. At the time, it might have seemed like an odd choice. Both brothers were Bethany College graduates and neither had any experience in manufacturing work. Billy earned his degree in education. Matt had studied accounting. But despite their lack of factory experience, Eddy recognized something in the Mattesons. They were hard workers and eager to learn. Eagle Manufacturing trained the brothers, and over time both worked their way into management.

Matt is now the corporate comptroller, while Billy is the production and inventory manager. “If you’ve got the right work ethic and you have these soft skills, you’ll have the ability to move up in any job,” Eddy says.

Our Children’s Children
As we have seen, there is a tremendous effort now directed toward solving West Virginia’s workforce issues. But we also must be realistic. There is no immediate solution to West Virginians’ shortfall of work ethic—or soft skills, or grit, or whatever you would call that intangible mix of personality traits today’s workers are lacking. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, however. Change isn’t impossible, it will just take time.

Rebecca Randolph at the state manufacturer’s association says no one should expect to see the fruits of their labor anytime soon. “Frankly it’s not just the generation of students we’re working with now. It’s about their children,” she says. Fixing the workforce will require a fundamental shift in the state’s culture, and that cannot happen overnight. It won’t happen until our children’s children grow up like our parents’ parents did, in homes where a hard day’s work is not just expected, but valued. “Until we get that cultural shift, we’re going to suffer economically,” she says. “Are we going to be the direct beneficiaries? No.”

Randolph is glad, however, that state leaders are trying so hard now to fix state’s workforce problems. “That’s a legacy people like Kathy D’Antoni can be proud of. They know they’re improving industry in West Virginia. That will have historic impact,” she says. “One thing that cannot be said is West Virginia is not trying to address this issue.”