West Virginia's heavy dependence on blue-collar industries -- once a source of prosperity -- is a millstone around the state's neck as the new Information Age shifts to high-paying, knowledge-based employment in much of America. Too often, West Virginians are stuck with low-paying service jobs.
That's the basic message of "From Weirton Steel to Wal-Mart," an economic summary by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, assisted by the state unit of the American Friends Service Committee.
The report recounts how the arrival of mining machines in the 1950s caused a massive job wipeout and a period of poverty. It says:
"State coal mining jobs reached a post-World War II peak in 1948, with a total of 131,000. These began to decline immediately from that point. By the end of the 1950s, the number had dropped to 55,600."
In the 1980s, still-bigger machines and mountaintop removal mining wiped out thousands more West Virginia miner jobs, which now number a bit over 20,000.
"If ever there was a war on coal, or more specifically on coal miners, it took place in the 1980s," the report says. "And the miners lost."
Similarly, manufacturing employed more than 120,000 West Virginians in the 1970s, but the number fell to 49,200 by 2012. The report, outlined in a commentary by reformer Rick Wilson, continues:
"In 1979, Weirton Steel was West Virginia's largest private employer. At its height, it employed 14,000 workers. Union members earned an hourly wage of around $16 in 1979 dollars.... You could often earn better wages in the steel mill than you could with a college education.... As of early 2013, it employed around 1,000 workers, a decline of around 93 percent from its peak. Since 1980, the town's population has declined from 24,736 in 1980 to an estimated 19,651 in 2011."
Part of the old Weirton Steel mill was razed to make a site for a Wal-Mart, the big-box retailer that is West Virginia's largest employer today.
This gloomy analysis describes economy change that is occurring around the world. The era of blue-collar industrial armies and powerful labor unions has faded. Today, good incomes stem from specialized mental work -- and poor incomes go to less-educated people in service jobs.
West Virginia lags in education levels required for the snowballing Information Age. State leaders are struggling to repair this deficit. Improving schools is a crucial mission that should be supported by all thinking West Virginians.