The latest State Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed West Virginia had the highest job openings rate in the country, at 9.2 percent and with 71,000 job openings. While there has been much discussion about legislation to cut unemployment benefits in an attempt to “get people back to work” and fill these job openings, unemployment benefits are not the source of West Virginia’s job openings. Instead, a mismatch of who is unemployed and what job openings are available, as well as a public sector full of vacancies, tells a more accurate story.
State-level job openings data is a relatively new data source, built on a small sample size, and conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from just one month of data. The West Virginia data has been volatile but higher than the national average over the past five years.
However, according the the latest state JOLTS report, West Virginia had the highest job openings rate in the country, at 9.2 percent in January of 2023, compared to the national average of 6.5 percent. However, West Virginia also had a historically low unemployment rate of just 3.7 percent as of February 2023.
The number of West Virginia workers collecting uninsurance benefits is even lower, and also at historic lows. While 28,800 workers were considered unemployed in January, only 9,522 were considered insured unemployed, or roughly the amount collecting unemployment benefits. That is equal to only 1.2 percent of the labor force, compared to the official unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.
When comparing those insured unemployed workers with the available job openings, it becomes clear that there is a major jobs mismatch driving West Virginia’s high job openings rate, not unemployment benefits. Over 33 percent of insured unemployed workers in West Virginia are in the construction industry. However, nationwide, only 0.3 percent of job openings are in construction. Instead, professional service, health care, and food service are the industries with the greatest share of job openings, making up nearly half (49.1 percent) of all job openings in the country. In contrast, those industries make up only 15.6 percent of insured unemployed workers in the state.
In short, while construction workers make up the largest share of workers collecting unemployment insurance in West Virginia, only a small fraction–less than one percent–of job openings are in construction. Instead, demand for workers is highest in professional service, health care, and food service industries, all of which make up a relatively smaller share of unemployed workers in West Virginia.
While construction work is cyclical (with more workers unemployed during the winter months when there are fewer construction projects), West Virginia will likely continue to have a jobs mismatch problem. According to Workforce West Virginia, the biggest growing industry over the next 10 years will be health care services, which are expected to add 23,920 jobs, followed by ambulatory health care services, which are expected to add 13,843 jobs. West Virginia needs more health care workers, who make up only a small fraction of the unemployed, and who require specialized skills and education that most unemployed workers don’t have. No amount of cutting unemployment benefits will address that issue.
The mismatch between the industries of unemployed workers and the industries in demand of workers isn’t the only explanation for West Virginia’s high job openings rate. Unfilled vacancies in state government–which both contribute to job openings and the slowing recovery in the state–are also an issue. West Virginia has recovered 98.5 percent of the private sector jobs it lost during the pandemic recession. However, as austerity budgets have taken hold and tax cuts have been prioritized over filling vacancies, the state has only recovered 90.6 percent of state government jobs and 94.5 percent of local government jobs. Overall, West Virginia is down 7,300 state and local jobs from its pre-pandemic level.
West Virginia’s ongoing population loss is also likely a driving factor. While the state’s unemployment rate is at a historic low, and its employment rate is back to its pre-pandemic level, both are influenced by the size of the population. West Virginia once again lost population in 2022, with deaths far outpacing both births and migration. With fewer West Virginians overall, it is possible to maintain a low unemployment rate while still seeing a high jobs opening rate, because there are simply fewer West Virginians overall that are available to fill jobs.
There are a variety of reasons to explain West Virginia’s high rate of job openings. From seasonal effects of construction work, to a shortage of health care professionals, to austerity policies creating vacancies all throughout state and local government, to a declining population, it is clear that unemployment benefits are not the cause. Instead of attempting to reduce access to unemployment benefits, lawmakers should focus on policies that reduce barriers to entering the labor force, including supports for families, community health, job training, and transportation.