Looking past vote, U.S. coal country sees
millennials as key to revival
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[November 03, 2016]
By Valerie Volcovici
HUNTINGTON, WV (Reuters) - When Carissa
Sellards talks to her West Virginia University friends about
post-graduation plans, one dilemma keeps coming up – whether to stay in
their home state or strike out for more promising opportunities
If recent history holds, over half of them will either not find work or
leave the state, contributing to a brain drain of young talent that is
pushing the state to try to reinvent its economy and break with a coal
industry in long-term decline.
"Companies don’t come here to invest because they only associate us with
coal," said Sellards, a 20-year-old sophomore who addressed the state
legislature when she was in high school about the lack of opportunities
for young people in a post-coal economy.
The often stark choices faced by Sellards and other young, educated West
Virginians underline the challenges awaiting Democratic candidate
Hillary Clinton here and in other “Rust Belt” states if she wins the
Nov. 8 election, as most polls suggest she will.
West Virginia is expected to vote decisively for Republican Donald
Trump, who has gained in recent polls and promises to revive the coal
industry and put miners back to work by easing environmental
restrictions and renegotiating trade deals to America’s advantage. It is
a message that has resonated with millions of older voters in other Rust
Belt states facing declines in manufacturing jobs and feeling threatened
by foreign competition.
But it largely rings hollow for college-educated millennials like
Sellards, who are seeking jobs in the service economy or technology
By contrast, Clinton alienated swathes of West Virginia voters by saying
earlier this year that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal
companies out of business” in transitioning to cleaner energy. Coal
industry backers have long accused President Barack Obama of waging a
“war on coal” by imposing tougher environmental standards.
Clinton later apologized for her comment, and has proposed a $30 billion
plan to help revitalize coal communities. The plan promises to secure
health benefits for former coal workers, invest in new infrastructure
such as broadband access, and repurpose old mines and power plant sites.
Clinton energy adviser Trevor Houser has said her challenge will be to
help coal and other Rust Belt communities deal with economic realities
rather than "false promises" of restoring dying industries.
Beneath the nostalgic coal rhetoric, West Virginia officials and
grassroots groups have quietly started to focus on reversing the flight
of college-educated millennials to help drive an economic revival.
Of the 124,358 students who graduated from public higher education in
West Virginia in the last decade, 58,730 were working in the state in
2014, a work participation rate of 47.2 percent, according to a report
released by West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic
Research on Monday.
The state had the 11th biggest net outflow of college degree holders
from 2007-2014, according to the most recent U.S. census.
One barrier to keeping graduates in state is a business start-up rate
that is the lowest in the country at 5.1 percent in 2014, the most
recent year of available data.
A Reuters analysis of national data shows a strong connection between
migration patterns of college graduates and local start-up rates: Among
the 25 states with start-up rates below the 2014 median of 6.8 percent,
19 saw a net outflow of college grads between 2007 and 2014.
The debate over West Virginia’s economic future comes as its coal
production this year hit its lowest level since the 1970s.
West Virginia's energy sector, which includes coal, natural gas
production and utilities, account for 17 percent of the state's GDP but
only 4 percent of employment. Coal industry employment plunged 53
percent between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of
2016, down from nearly 26,000 to just over 12,000.
The government is the state's biggest employer, accounting for 20
percent of jobs, with healthcare a fast-growing sector at 17 percent. In
2014, West Virginia's real GDP grew 0.7 percent from the previous year
compared to the national average of 2.2 percent.
The state is one of a few whose population shrank over the past two
years, according to the latest national census. By median age it is the
second-oldest U.S. state, four years above the national average.
[to top of second column]
Carissa Sellards, a sophomore at WVU-Charleston, sits at a coffee
shop in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S. August 23, 2016.
At the West Virginia University Institute of Technology’s new campus
in Beckley, which opened in August, close to some of the state’s
coal counties, officials hope to turn the struggling city into an
In addition to offering courses in burgeoning fields like computer
science, sustainable tourism and health care, WVU Tech hosts the
Launch Lab, a small business incubator that helps budding
entrepreneurs bring ideas to fruition.
Joe Carlucci, a small business coach and director of the LaunchLab,
said West Virginia is at the start of a long process of reinvention
after decades of mourning coal.
“They are prepared to plant that seed and not see the shade of that
tree," he said. "They are seeing that we have to change our own
Although Clinton would struggle to regain popularity in Rust Belt
states if elected, these regions would have an incentive to work
with her administration to tap into federal grants.
West Virginia Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins, a member of the
House appropriations committee who represents the state’s southern
coal-producing regions, said the state cannot turn down assistance
to diversify its economy.
"I want to continue fueling grant-making opportunities to unleash
the entrepreneurial spirit and energy of the state’s millennials,”
he told Reuters at a ceremony in August in which federal grants were
But unleashing that spirit will require a significant investment in
infrastructure, specifically broadband access, something that local
lawmakers ignored when coal was still performing well eight years
ago, said Chris Walters, a 30-year old Republican state senator.
Walters is focused on getting legislation passed to expand broadband
access throughout the mountainous state, which ranks near the bottom
of the list of broadband connectivity, just ahead of Guam and Puerto
“If we don’t give connectivity to our residents, we aren’t giving
them the opportunity to succeed in the global economy,” said
In state capital Charleston, NGO Generation West Virginia has helped
pass legislation to attract young entrepreneurs seeking low-cost
alternatives to places like Denver or San Francisco, including a
bill to waive business start-up fees to people under 30 and another
to allow crowd-funding to help seed new businesses.
Entrepreneurship also extends to industries like agriculture, which
state officials see as an opportunity in the state’s rural coal
An entrepreneurship program called the Coalfield Development
Corporation won a $2 million grant this year to help train young
people from coal counties to run businesses, offering them college
classes, life skills and paid apprenticeships.
Ben Gilmer, the 34-year-old director of the corporation's
agriculture entrepreneurship program Refresh Appalachia, said part
of Clinton's challenge in coal country will be to sell the vision of
a future that is unfamiliar.
Small programs like his can offer concrete examples and help ease
the transition, he said.
"Politicians take advantage of people’s fear of what comes next,"
Gilmer said. "But five years from now, we will have examples and
that will speak louder than any rhetoric that's out there."
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Howard
Schneider; editing by Stuart Grudgings)
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