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On W.Va. Day, a look at the state's economic future

As the 35th state celebrates its 137th birthday today, West Virginia finds itself in the middle of change.

It isn't change as dramatic as the state was born in -- when a nation was at war with itself -- but it is significant change. It's is economic change, and technology is driving it.

Nowhere is the change so apparent as in the coal industry. Coal employment is declining as coal production (thanks to technology) is increasing. It has been for years. In 1950, the West Virginia coal industry employed 119,000 people; in 1960, it employed only 48,000. In 1960, with those 48,000 miners, the state's coal industry produced 120 million tons of coal. In 1970, with 45,000 miners, the industry produced 143 million tons. In 1970, with 43,000 miners, it produced 121 million tons. In 1990, with 25,000, it produced 171 million tons. In 1998, with 18,000 miners, it produced 180 million tons, according to West Virginia Coal Association figures.

Even with the loss of those jobs, West Virginia's jobless rate has declined. New jobs have been created in technology-related fields, health care and the service sector. To see where the new jobs are, look at the top employers in West Virginia: Wal-Mart is No. 1, then Charleston Area Medical Center, then Kroger. Rounding out the top 11 are Weirton Steel, Columbia HCA (a health-care company), Du Pont, CSX, Bell Atlantic, Union Carbide, WVU Hospitals and Rite Aid, according to the state Bureau of Employment Programs.

Technology-related, health-care and service jobs dominate the list and will continue to do so, according to the state BEP.

(The same pattern holds true in Harrison County. The top employers here are the FBI, the county Board of Education, United Hospital Center, Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center, CNG Corp., Consolidation Coal, Union Carbide, Pratt & Whitney Engines and the West Virginia Air Center.)

It's true that many of these new jobs, especially in the service sector, are part time with low pay. But there will continue be better-paying, more secure jobs for West Virginians who get the education or the training to qualify for them, according to the Bureau of Employment Programs.

All this change should be for the better. West Virginia and it's people can only benefit from a diversified economy that promises jobs in a range of expanding businesses. On its 137th birthday, there is reason to be optimistic about West Virginia's economic future.

Tim Langer

Telegram Editorial Board member

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