Graduates aren't finding enough jobs here
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Steve Knoblock celebrated his 30th birthday by starting his first day of work at his new job.
The 2009 West Virginia University graduate didn't sit at a tidy desk topped with piles of papers like he expected he would be doing with his master's degree in professional accountancy.
Instead, he stood behind a cash register and scanned customers' items at a Walmart in Morgantown.
The national store has been the No. 1 employer in West Virginia for 15 years, but it's not the workplace for someone with two college degrees, Knoblock said.
The Bridgeport native said he wants to work in his home state, but he hasn't had any luck at the numerous in-state accounting firms where he has applied in the past few years.
While he has committed to the Mountain State since graduation -- and has taken minimum-wage jobs in the meantime to stay here -- many of his peers have left to find work elsewhere, he said.
"The problem I see is it's not that graduates are looking for excuses to leave, it's because they can't find a reason to stay," Knoblock said. "When you hit a certain milestone birthday like 30 and all of a sudden the big thing to commemorate your day is 'I just got a job working the cash register at Walmart making minimum wage,' it gives a little pause."
Most people who live in West Virginia want to work here after they graduate, said Eric Bowen, research assistant for the West Virginia University Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
But they leave the state because the jobs they are looking for aren't always here, he said.
Of the 115,730 students who graduated from a public university in West Virginia in the past 10 years, nearly 52 percent of them weren't working in the state in 2011, according to a study published by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the BBER.
The report, "From Higher Education to Work in West Virginia 2011," provides an analysis of the work participation and wages for graduates of the state's public institutions of higher education during the past 10 years.
Bowen, author of the report, said some jobs aren't as obtainable in the state as others, such as jobs in engineering.
George Hammond, a former WVU economist who now serves the same position at the University of Arizona, said the state has a difficult time attaining science and technology graduates because those high-tech jobs aren't available here.
More than half of all graduates of the state's public universities in the last 10 years were employed in just two industries, according to the study.
Of those 55,675 graduates who worked in the state, more than 27 percent were employed in health care and 23 percent worked in education.
Officials said the state's aging population correlates with the increase in health-care jobs.
"You have certain career paths that aren't necessarily in West Virginia and they will be more likely to move out of the state," Bowen said. "There are a certain percentage of people who get educated in the state and move out and that has to do with the availability of jobs in certain types of careers."
More than 70 percent of West Virginia University graduates who had been out of school for at least five years had left the state to work, the highest rate of any top public university in the country, according to the most recent study by Payscale.com.
Officials from the HEPC said 52 percent of WVU's student body is out-of-state students anyway so it is understood a majority would leave.
The state does have unique challenges based on the history of its workforce, officials said.
West Virginia has a workforce that has been based on jobs that didn't require a college education, like steel and mining, for example, said Paul Hill, chancellor of the state HEPC.
Jobs that were once considered "blue collar" now require a college education and that has been a challenge for the state, he said.
West Virginia has among the lowest college attendance and completion rates in the country.
Hammond said in order for the state to become more competitive and see faster growth, it has to produce more college graduates.
Hill referred to the "Educating West Virginia is Everyone's Business" report, from a task force organized by the HEPC and West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education that lays out a five-step roadmap to dramatically increase West Virginia's college completion rate.
Hill said the state will need an additional 20,000 college graduates just to meet the workforce's current needs in the next five years.
"Which is a need above and beyond what we have right now," Hill said. "If we had a major industry developed here, that might start to draw an additional need for college graduates. We already know we need to produce more college graduates to meet the need of the growing industry."
Some graduates are working in positions that didn't exist 10 years ago, Hill said.
The development along the Interstate 79 corridor in north-central West Virginia is bringing new businesses, such as Northrop Grumman, to the state and employing more West Virginia graduates, he said.
Hammond said the state has been "working hard to improve the business climate," but there is still a lot of work to do in terms of keeping the tax and regulatory environment as competitive as possible.
Forbes ranked West Virginia 45th in its annual "Best States for Business" report.
It ranked the state as 48th in "growth prospects" and 47th in "regulatory environment." While the state's corporate net income tax declined from 9 percent in 2007 to 7.75 percent in 2012, Forbes said West Virginia's population growth "is anemic at just 0.2 percent since 2006."
The study said the state has a poor business climate, few big companies, and a poorly educated workforce.
Having more college graduates results in a stimulated economy, which will improve the state's business climate as a whole, Bowen said.
"College graduates generate economic activity, start businesses and tend to be entrepreneurial," Bowen said. "Having a highly educated workforce is one of the most important markers of economic growth, and West Virginia has a fairly low number of people who have pursued higher education."
Out of every 100 West Virginia students enrolled in the ninth grade, only 17 will earn a two- or four-year college degree within 10 years.
Of the students who attend college in the state, 60 percent do not complete their degrees.
Ron Knoblock, Steve Knoblock's father, said college graduates represent the future economic development of the state.
He said he didn't become aware of how difficult it is to find a job in West Virginia until his son started looking, and hardly hearing back from companies, in his home state.
Ron Knoblock said the ordeal has been frustrating, not only for his son, but for other graduates who can't find jobs. Most of them have left the state, but Steve Knoblock doesn't want to move because "if he were to leave he would never come back," Ron Knoblock said.
"At what point does someone make the decision 'it's not going to happen here' and pull up the roots and go elsewhere?" Ron said. "There are certain types of jobs that you aren't going to find here, but for a lot of other occupations, where there should be business development, those types of jobs should be here."
Steve Knoblock said he will continue to search for an accounting job in West Virginia, "the only home I've ever known."
He said he hopes businesses are willing to take a chance on graduates who may not have enough experience in their field, but are well-educated.
"People like myself, my friends and people I've never even met have gotten these degrees and businesses are not willing to take the risk to invest in these graduates to really give them the opportunity to show them what they can do, so of course they're leaving because they don't have any incentive not to," Steve Knoblock said. "But I like the environment and the people here and that's why I want to work here."
Reach Megan Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5113.