Last year’s edition of the State of Working West Virginia report focused on the issue of low-wage work. The report found that nearly a quarter of the jobs in the state were low wage, paying less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of two, or $24,108 per year. Low-wage work is now the state’s main source of job growth, and is no longer confined to young workers entering the workforce.
Projections from Workforce West Virginia, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows the trend continuing for the state, with job and wage forecast data showing low-wage jobs growing even more prominent over the next 10 years.
According to Workforce West Virginia’s 2013 Self Sufficiency Standard, a family of three in Kanawha County needs to earn at least $35,375 ($36,513 in 2016 dollars) to sustain themselves without assistance, allowing them to maintain a standard of living that meets basic necessities.
Projections from Workforce WV find that West Virginians can expect a future in which more than 6 out of 10 new jobs are in occupations paying less than what it takes to get by. Of the approximately 82,000 projected job openings from 2016 to 2026, 65 percent are in occupations that pay less than the Self Sufficiency Standard for a family of three.
Sixteen of the top 20 fastest growing occupations over the next decade are in low-wage occupations paying median wages less than current family-sustaining wages for a family of three. Over 86 percent percent of the jobs West Virginia projects to grow would leave most West Virginia families unable to meet their basic needs.
The high concentration of low-wage jobs in the top 20 occupations with projected new job openings is an opportunity for policymakers to invest in the workers who are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. The state has not cultivated a workforce with the skills necessary to attract higher-wage jobs. West Virginia cannot simply hope to attract a new top 20 set of occupations out of thin air through tax cuts and deregulation as its main policy strategy. Instead, West Virginia needs to invest in the prosperity of its workers by raising wages and job quality baselines, and increasing access to the education and skills needed to be able to reach the kinds of jobs the state wants to grow the economy. Without policies aimed at boosting wages and job quality, West Virginia could continue to have a weak economy with even more families struggling to make end meet.
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