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Looking Past Vote, US Coal Country Sees Millennials As Key To Revival

 The Hawk |  2016-11-04 08:08:47.0  0  Comments

Looking Past Vote, US Coal Country Sees Millennials As Key To Revival

Huntington: When Carissa Sellards talks to her West Virginia University friends about post-graduation plans, one dilemma keeps coming up - whether to stay in their home state or strike out for more promising opportunities elsewhere. If recent history holds, over half of them will either not find work or leave the state, contributing to a brain drain of young talent that is pushing the state to try to reinvent its economy and break with a coal industry in long-term decline. "Companies don't come here to invest because they only associate us with coal," said Sellards, a 20-year-old sophomore who addressed the state legislature when she was in high school about the lack of opportunities for young people in a post-coal economy. The often stark choices faced by Sellards and other young, educated West Virginians underline the challenges awaiting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton here and in other "Rust Belt" states if she wins the Nov 8 election, as most polls suggest she will. West Virginia is expected to vote decisively for Republican Donald Trump, who has gained in recent polls and promises to revive the coal industry and put miners back to work by easing environmental restrictions and renegotiating trade deals to America's advantage. It is a message that has resonated with millions of older voters in other Rust Belt states facing declines in manufacturing jobs and feeling threatened by foreign competition. But it largely rings hollow for college-educated millennials like Sellards, who are seeking jobs in the service economy or technology sector. By contrast, Clinton alienated swathes of West Virginia voters by saying earlier this year that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" in transitioning to cleaner energy. Coal industry backers have long accused President Barack Obama of waging a "war on coal" by imposing tougher environmental standards. Clinton later apologized for her comment, and has proposed a 30 billion dollars plan to help revitalize coal communities. The plan promises to secure health benefits for former coal workers, invest in new infrastructure such as broadband access, and repurpose old mines and power plant sites. Clinton energy adviser Trevor Houser has said her challenge will be to help coal and other Rust Belt communities deal with economic realities rather than "false promises" of restoring dying industries. Beneath the nostalgic coal rhetoric, West Virginia officials and grassroots groups have quietly started to focus on reversing the flight of college-educated millennials to help drive an economic revival. Of the 124,358 students who graduated from public higher education in West Virginia in the last decade, 58,730 were working in the state in 2014, a work participation rate of 47.2 per cent, according to a report released by West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research on Monday. The state had the 11th biggest net outflow of college degree holders from 2007-2014, according to the most recent US census. One barrier to keeping graduates in state is a business start-up rate that is the lowest in the country at 5.1 per cent in 2014, the most recent year of available data. A Reuters analysis of national data shows a strong connection between migration patterns of college graduates and local start-up rates: Among the 25 states with start-up rates below the 2014 median of 6.8 per cent, 19 saw a net outflow of college grads between 2007 and 2014. The debate over West Virginia's economic future comes as its coal production this year hit its lowest level since the 1970s. West Virginia's energy sector, which includes coal, natural gas production and utilities, account for 17 per cent of the state's GDP but only 4 per cent of employment. Coal industry employment plunged 53 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2016, down from nearly 26,000 to just over 12,000. The government is the state's biggest employer, accounting for 20 per cent of jobs, with healthcare a fast-growing sector at 17 per cent. In 2014, West Virginia's real GDP grew 0.7 per cent from the previous year compared to the national average of 2.2 per cent.

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