Mind the Gap

Employers worry a flagging work ethic in West Virginia will hamper future growth.


Written and Photographed by Zack Harold

The great virtue of West Virginia workers was never that they were the smartest in the world—although they have proven to be plenty smart. West Virginia workers also never claimed to possess superior strength, although their backs were always strong enough to complete the task at hand.

No, this state’s badge of honor has always been our commitment to hard work. West Virginians will take the jobs nobody else wants, stay late, come in on weekends, put in as many hours as necessary until the work is done. There may be others just as smart or just as strong, but nobody works harder than the West Virginian.

Or so we’d like to believe.

When Rebecca Randolph became the president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association in 2013, she spent some time visiting member companies, educating herself on issues facing industry. She learned companies often have difficulty filling open positions. But the problem wasn’t the number of applications. Rather, it was the quality of the applicants. Employers often receive a glut of responses after posting an opening, but only a fraction of the applicants meet even the basic requirements for employment. “They will have to look at 150 candidates and pare that down to 75, just to get 35,” Randolph says.

Although there is a shortage of “hard skills”—Randolph says companies have a difficult time getting applicants with solid math, reading, and problem-solving skills—they are more troubled by the lack of “soft skills” like showing up to work on time, putting in a full shift, and being able to pass a drug test.

Joe Eddy is the president and CEO of Eagle Manufacturing in Wellsburg. His company makes more than 1,000 industrial safety and hazardous material handling products. The plant employs 185 people. When a job opens up, applications flood in. Eddy has 600 to 800 resumes on file at any given time and interviews about 10 people for every job. It’s always difficult to find machinists and welders, as well as higher-skilled employees like engineers. But even when applicants have all the necessary skills, Eddy says they still might not work out.

A worker can possess all kinds of knowledge and skills, but Eddy says that’s not worth much if he doesn’t show up on time and pull his weight. “Employers care also about you having responsibility, reliability, accountability, and adaptability,” he says.

Randolph says workforce availability is one of the top concerns of businesses looking to move into the state. West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette agrees. He says years ago, companies looking to set up shop in the Mountain State asked questions about the state’s taxes and worker’s compensation system. Not anymore. Nowadays they are worried about finding enough quality employees.

Worries About Tomorrow’s Worker

In February, Procter & Gamble announced it would build a $500 million plant in Berkeley County. Burdette says as state leaders courted the multinational consumer goods manufacturer, company executives had one major concern. “They liked our location, they like our property, they like our government. They were concerned they could not find and develop a workforce,” he says.

Burdette disagrees with Randolph that West Virginia is currently facing a worker shortage. “I don’t have any problem going to a company and saying ‘Come to West Virginia and we’ll find you a workforce.’” The state won the P&G factory, after all. What Burdette is more concerned about—and says potential employers are, too—is the workforce of tomorrow and whether it will be up to the job.

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring in droves, leaving in their wake an unprecedented number of job vacancies. It’s an issue all industries are grappling with, from education to healthcare to manufacturing. And while that seems like good news for younger generations, employers are worried the new batch of workers won’t have the skills necessary to fill their predecessors’ shoes.

According to a study by the ManPowerGroup, which included 37,000 employers in 42 countries and territories, companies said 19 percent of positions remained vacant because applicants did not possess adequate soft skills.

So, what happened to our soft skills? Nobody seems to know. Of all the government, education, and industry sources interviewed for this story, no one could even hazard a guess. It just seems that, at some point, children knew hard work was expected. And then, at some later point, children lost that seemingly inborn knowledge.

We could probably blame the Internet, or reality television shows, or smartphones, or gluten-free diets. But if we’re honest, nothing is to blame, because everything is to blame. “We probably took a lot of things for granted over the years,” Burdette says.

There is one thing of which we can be certain, however. If West Virginians are no longer born with work ethic, we have to find a way to get it to them. “It’s going to be difficult to diversify any part of the state if we do not have a skilled workforce to match it,” Burdette says.

And here’s the good news: We already have people working to solve this problem.

Learning to Work

Skills-08Kathy D’Antoni has racked up more than 112,000 miles on her three-year-old Acura, mostly from driving to career and technical schools around the state. “We’ve got some fantastic career and technical schools, and we have some that need help.” And D’Antoni, the West Virginia Department of Education’s Chief Career and Technical Education Officer, is here to help.

Career and technical schools—what used to be called “vocational” or “vo-tech” schools—have traditionally focused on teaching students trades. You learn to weld in welding class. If you take auto repair, you learn to work on cars. But as D’Antoni talked with industry officials over the years, she learned companies were looking for something more than just a set of skills.

“They were absolutely screaming, ‘Have them show up on time, drug free, and give me a full day’s work, and we’ll train them,’” she says. So D’Antoni began to develop a program that would teach West Virginia’s students not just how to do a job, but also how to work.

The result is a program called “Simulated Workplace.” D’Antoni invited West Virginia Focus to Mingo Central High School to see it in action. When students arrive in the morning, they slide their thumbs over a fingerprint scanner to “clock in.” Classes are not called “classes.” Rather, students work for “companies,” each with an official-sounding name chosen by the “employees.”

At Mingo Central, students dubbed the carpentry class “King Coal Construction.” Engineering students call their class “Appalachian Engineering.” Welding students named their company “Mountaintop Metal.” Each company also has its own uniform, which the school purchased with money from the state education department.

Students in the graphic design class—named “smART Design”— wear black shirts with lime green suspenders and bowties. In the auto shop, called “Mountaintop Repair Shop,” students wear twotone mechanic shirts with the company logo embroidered on the lapel. Welding students wear green overalls.

Simulated Workplace is more than just a game of dress-up, however. It is changing the way technical education is delivered in West Virginia. Instead of formal lessons, classes are based around projects. Students learn by doing, and the progress of the class largely relies on students’ motivation. But, just like in the real world, there are consequences for missing work, slacking off, or acting up. Students can’t be fired—but their grades will suffer.

Marcella Charles, Mingo Central’s career and technical education administrator, says both attendance and student behavior have improved dramatically since Simulated Workforce came to the school three years ago. “It’s working. It really is,” she says. “I just see more ownership in the students.”

D’Antoni admits the program can be difficult for longtime educators. Teachers have to cede some control in the classroom. Instead of functioning like micromanaging bosses, they become professional development coordinators, teaching students the skills they need to accomplish the task at hand.

Engineering teacher Tom Bane says he was initially skeptical about the program. Sure, he reasoned, Simulated Workplace might be important for welding or HVAC students, but his pupils were headed to four-year engineering programs after high school. It didn’t take long before Bane became a believer, however. “Even engineers need those soft skills. We think just because they’re college-bound, we don’t need to teach them those skills,” he says.

Simulated Workplace started in 30 technical school classrooms across the state in 2012. It grew to 220 classrooms the next year, and there were 570 Simulated Workplace programs in operation during the 2014-15 school year. Starting this fall, it’s going statewide. “There will not be a career-technical classroom in West Virginia that’s not Simulated Workplace,” D’Antoni says.

The program is gaining attention far outside West Virginia, too. Educators from eight states have visited to see Simulated Workplace in action, and Australia is currently running three pilot programs based on Simulated Workplace, with plans to go nationwide.

A group of teachers from North Carolina visited Mingo Central the same day West Virginia Focus took a tour of the school. Herman Locklear, career and technical education director for Robeson County Schools in North Carolina, says his district was already developing a program similar to Simulated Workplace. “Every industry tells the same story, ‘We need people who can come to work and be willing to work,’” he says.

But last year, some teachers from Locklear’s district heard D’Antoni at a conference in Alabama. They called him right away. ‘They said ‘This is what we need,’” he says. The school system plans to launch a Simulated Workplace program in the fall.

Train Them If You’ve Got Them

Once students attain the necessary soft skills, employers are often ready to help them get the “hard skills” they need. Companies, especially those in the manufacturing sector, are increasingly willing to train people for jobs as long as the employees demonstrate a willingness to work.

Dennis Dunbar, a skilled team leader at Toyota’s engine and transmission plant in Buffalo, says the company experimented with hiring out-of-state workers when it could not find enough highly skilled workers in West Virginia. The plan backfired, however. Despite offering signing bonuses and covering relocation costs, the plant found most of the workers didn’t stick around long. “It was a culture shock to some people to move to West Virginia. Buffalo, West Virginia is not Detroit, Michigan,” he says. “That was a big expense with no long-term gain.”

So Toyota focused instead on recruiting and training a group of people who love living in West Virginia—native West Virginians. In 2012, the Toyota factory launched a new program with BridgeValley Community and Technical College to train students for highly technical manufacturing jobs. Students in the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program spend two days per week in the classroom and three days a week on the factory floor at Toyota. By the end of the program, students will have earned an associate’s degree—and more than $40,000.

Toyota has high standards for the students. They are required to maintain a C average in every class, keep near-perfect attendance, and work at the plant for 24 hours each week. By the end of the program’s first semester, the original pool of 17 candidates was down to just nine people. But Toyota has good reason to weed out the less-motivated students.

That initial class recently graduated, and four of the students now have full-time jobs at the automotive plant. “They show up to work every day, they’re well motivated, they work well with others. You can’t get that in an hour interview with someone,” Dunbar says. “It’s much easier to offer a job to a known quantity.”

Buffalo was the second Toyota plant to begin an on-the-job training program—the original started in Georgetown, Kentucky two years earlier. By the end of this summer, the company will have similar programs at 12 of its manufacturing facilities in North America. The car manufacturer hopes to eventually fill all its job openings with graduates of the program. “Just from the comfort of knowing the attitude, attendance, and ethics of a person,” Dunbar says.

Dunbar says he would like to see other companies adopt similar training programs. “It’s working for us. I feel sure it will work for other manufacturers,” he says. “Look what you get out of it. You get highly skilled graduates. You’ve molded that product. You’ve instilled proper thinking. I’m totally sold on it.”

The train-your-own-workers philosophy can work for small companies, too. When Josh Dodd and his business partner Megan Bullock started their graphic design and web development company MESH in October 2009, they made what seemed like a logical hiring decision: They hired computer programmers to program computers.

It turned out to be a bad choice, for a few reasons. First, Dodd says university computer science programs are more focused on backend programming—the behind-the-scenes operations of computer systems. Students don’t get much training to handle front-end programming tasks like website development. Programmers might understand the code, but that doesn’t mean they know how to create a pleasing user experience. “With web, you have to understand usability,” Dodd says.

But worse than that, the coders Bullock and Dodd hired did not play nicely with others—an essential skill when collaborating with multiple people on a project. So over time, the pair decided to approach hiring in a different way.

Now when the company goes looking for a developer, Dodd says he’s not too concerned about candidates’ work histories or educational backgrounds. They need to know how to code, obviously, but it’s also important they are smart, willing to learn, and work well with others. “You can be a really good web developer without having a computer science degree. It’s not always about the skillset,” Dodd says. “We can provide the training. It’s about the attitude.”

Joe Eddy at Eagle Manufacturing says his company is also relying more on in-house training. He has the same problem Toyota did. When he has been able to convince out-of-state workers to move to West Virginia for jobs, it was seldom a longterm arrangement. “I haven’t been able to keep people here.”

Skills-05Now Eddy is taking employees with proven work ethic and training them to fill empty positions. “We can train you, and you can do a job and work here forever,” he says. About 10 years ago, he hired two brothers, Billy and Matt Matteson, to work in his plant’s plastics processing division. At the time, it might have seemed like an odd choice. Both brothers were Bethany College graduates and neither had any experience in manufacturing work. Billy earned his degree in education. Matt had studied accounting. But despite their lack of factory experience, Eddy recognized something in the Mattesons. They were hard workers and eager to learn. Eagle Manufacturing trained the brothers, and over time both worked their way into management.

Matt is now the corporate comptroller, while Billy is the production and inventory manager. “If you’ve got the right work ethic and you have these soft skills, you’ll have the ability to move up in any job,” Eddy says.

Our Children’s Children

As we have seen, there is a tremendous effort now directed toward solving West Virginia’s workforce issues. But we also must be realistic. There is no immediate solution to West Virginians’ shortfall of work ethic—or soft skills, or grit, or whatever you would call that intangible mix of personality traits today’s workers are lacking. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, however. Change isn’t impossible, it will just take time.

Rebecca Randolph at the state manufacturer’s association says no one should expect to see the fruits of their labor anytime soon. “Frankly it’s not just the generation of students we’re working with now. It’s about their children,” she says. Fixing the workforce will require a fundamental shift in the state’s culture, and that cannot happen overnight. It won’t happen until our children’s children grow up like our parents’ parents did, in homes where a hard day’s work is not just expected, but valued. “Until we get that cultural shift, we’re going to suffer economically,” she says. “Are we going to be the direct beneficiaries? No.”

Randolph is glad, however, that state leaders are trying so hard now to fix state’s workforce problems. “That’s a legacy people like Kathy D’Antoni can be proud of. They know they’re improving industry in West Virginia. That will have historic impact,” she says. “One thing that cannot be said is West Virginia is not trying to address this issue.”

2 comments

It’s not just workers but also employers. Workers used to receive pensions, pay raises, vacations. Today, those are fast disappearing as companies rely on temp. workers, ship jobs overseas, cut benefits, and let’s not forget all those jobs shipped overseas to low-wage workers and workplaces with no concern for safety. There used to be loyalty — loyalty to the employers and loyalty to the workers. Workers used to work for the same company for all of their working life. That era is gone. This is the new era, one of capitalistic greed, with the fruits of workers’ labor going to executives and stockholders. I challenge you to find something in the store labeled “Made In America” (especially at Walmart, “the country’s largest employer”). Families used to be able to live a decent life with only one income earner. That’s seldom true today. This article focused on, and blamed, only workers. There are usually two sides to every issue. The flip side to “lazy workers” is “capitalistic greed”. There’s a reason why the Walton family is worth over $30 billion while Walmart workers depend on taxpayer-subsidized benefits like food stamps, AFDC, and CHIP.

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