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'I'm outta here'

by Danny Forinash

STAFF WRITER

Wesley Walls, 21, of Clarksburg is marking the time until he leaves West Virginia. The 21-year-old Fairmont State College senior sees more culture -- and money -- awaiting him elsewhere.

His sister, Marie, likes West Virginia's "small-town atmosphere," friendly people and low crime rate. The 18-year-old Robert C. Byrd High School graduate wants to stay in the state, but says she may have to move anyway: She wants to be a forensic psychologist, and isn't sure she will be able to find a job here.

Many of West Virginia's young people are like the Walls: They either can't wait to leave, or want to stay but end up leaving anyway, citing lack of jobs or lack of high-paying jobs.

It's a trend that's drying up the young blood that runs through West Virginia and making the state one of the oldest in the nation, according to experts and statistics.

They say that as the youth go, so goes the future of West Virginia. With few young people around to continue business and tradition, the state may grow poorer as it grows older.

Youth Flight by the Numbers

The number of West Virginians from ages 18 to 24 decreased from 191,000 to 173,000 from 1995 to 2000, according to estimates from the United States Census Bureau and a report by bureau official Paul R. Campbell titled "Population Projections for States, by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin."

That number, according to the report, is expected to decrease further to 141,000 in 2025, even though state's population is projected to grow by almost 20,000 people from now until 2025.

It's a trend that could leave West Virginia with the lowest proportion of youth among the 50 states and District of Columbia in 25 years and the second highest proportion of elderly, according to projections.

West Virginia ranked sixth in percentage of natives who are still living in their home state over the past 10 years, according to the Census Bureau. Taking into account other numbers, that suggests older West Virginia natives may be moving back while few outsiders are coming to live.

And from 1985 to 1990 people leaving West Virginia outnumbered people coming to the Mountain State by 70,000, the Census Bureau said, a trend the Bureau says has continued since its 1990 report. That strengthens the notion that many of the state's youth are choosing to leave West Virginia at high school and college age.

But Why?

Bridgeport native Stephanie Cromwell, a 21-year-old pharmacy major at West Virginia University, said her peers often complain about lack of jobs.

"And when you compare jobs that are here with the same positions in other states, you see that the ones in the other states offer better salaries," Cromwell said.

Jeff Tennant, 24, a native of Clarksburg, already has moved from West Virginia a few times, to Alabama and Ohio. Tennant, now attending the American Motorcycle Institute in Florida, keeps coming back because of family.

But he plans to eventually leave for good.

"There are no opportunities in Clarksburg," Tennant said. "Politics own this town. You can't get anywhere unless you own your own business or know someone."

For Quiet Dell Native David Felton, 21, who now works for a computer company in Blacksburg, Va., the grass appears greener on the other side of the border -- for more reasons than financial stability.

"We have dreams of something bigger and better," Felton said. "We watch television and see how much fun life in larger cities can be, and we see how West Virginia has so little of what is in the cities.

"All in all, we see a better life. Personally, I have found this to be true," continued Felton, who has worked near San Francisco, Ca. "If cities weren't so great, then why would so many people want to go there and then stay there?"

Clarksburg native Kelly Povroznik, 26, now works at the Southeastern Regional Medical Center near Charlotte, N.C. West Virginia's older population, she said, isn't much of a plus for some young people.

"Many areas of the state are run down and need desperate improvement," Povroznik said. "These and other facts and beliefs lead young people to believe West Virginia has nothing to offer them."

Some youth, however, look at West Virginia as a place to call home for a long time.

Pinaki Santra, 17, of Elkins, wants to remain in the state and, like Marie Walls, points to the home-town atmosphere. "There's a special bond between West Virginians that doesn't exist in other states," Santra said. "I think some young people leave for the same reasons others stay."

Santra, co-valedictorian of Elkins High School's Class of 2000 with his twin brother, Ramon, said he's talked to people who have left and regretted it.

For some, "it seems you don't have that family feeling in other places," Santra said.

Adds Marie Walls: "I want to stay here, I really do. I don't think I could find a job locally, so I will be forced to move -- but against my will. I think that if I would ever leave here, I would eventually come back to my real home."

Reversing the Trend

The 1999 Shepherdstown Report on Rural Aging found West Virginia has the highest median age of all the states and is one of the most rural areas in the nation.

The report indicated large exoduses of younger people from rural communities can leave rural elderly populations stranded on their own with limited access to health care and other services.

Blair Montgomery, director of the Fairmont State College Gaston Caperton Center in Clarksburg, said it is important for the state to keep its youth in order for the West Virginia to prosper. Without youth, he said, there can be little hope of state growth because there won't be many around to take over the reigns of business and tradition.

Montgomery, whose two children have left the state because of lack of opportunity, also believes young people are helping themselves when they stay.

"This state has a wonderful quality of life that young people sometimes don't realize," Montgomery said.

Keeping West Virginia natives in-state is a priority for Fairmont State, Montgomery said.

The college works with state businesses and industries to find out what types of workers are needed. Then, some of the school's curriculum is developed to match these needs, he said.

"We give serious priority to business and industry needs," said Montgomery. "Our No. 1 goal is trying to prepare students for what they want to do. If that takes them out of state, that's fine. But we want to give them every opportunity to stay."

Montgomery said every state public college and many private colleges have similar programs. "They have to respond to the needs of the state, because that's who's funding them," he said.

Dennis Davis, executive director of the Human Resource Council in Charleston, said several different programs aimed at keeping youth in-state exist.

A portion of Congress's Workforce Investment Act addressed such needs, Davis said. The act created councils that work with youth, pairing them up with officials like school superintendents and programs like Job Corps to plan out employment futures within the state.

A similar program is Jobs For West Virginia's Graduates. Mike Simmons, a state coordinator for the non-profit program, said it's designed to help students having trouble achieving high school graduation.

Job specialists work with 30 to 35 students each semester in each participating school, Simmons said.

Twelve months after high school, specialists continue to work with the students, helping them with employment, military careers or additional training. "We had about 1,300 students go through the program this year," he said. "And 95 percent have remained in West Virginia."

"We need more workers for the businesses in this state," said Simmons. "We also want to keep families together."

According to Montgomery, West Virginia features four seasons, easy access to the culture of big cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, little threat of disasters (except flooding), low crime rates and great outdoors. The only missing link is opportunity, he said, and if West Virginia can provide this, the state may begin to take on a younger tone.

"We have the greatest workers in the country," said Montgomery, who hopes that one day industries will start coming to West Virginia, instead of vice-versa. "Other states know that and will take as many West Virginia workers as they can get."

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