West Virginia is at a critical moment.
Last January, the Labor Department released an alarming figure: West Virginia is the only state where less than half of citizens work. This statistic made national headlines and was shared widely on social media. Unfortunately, we know these troubles too well: A sharp decline in coal severance tax has reduced state income; our prescription drug epidemic is startling; and young people are leaving the state at an alarming rate. (74 percent of WVU graduates leave within five years.)
Despite glimmers of progress, West Virginia’s communities suffer, and new leaders across business and political sectors have crucial decisions to make. It’s time for us to bet on our people and embrace the knowledge-based economy of our times.
We must realize in West Virginia that place has become the central organizing unit of the 21st century. As Richard Florida points out in his book, “Rise of the Creative Class,” access to creative talent is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore is to steel making. It determines where companies will choose to locate and grow. Carly Fiorina, Republican presidential candidate, told a group of governors when she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard, “you can keep your tax incentives and highway interchanges; we will relocate where the highly skilled people are.”
While we must celebrate and honor our rich history as a state, we must also look to the future with an emphasis on innovation. The U.S. economy has moved from a corporate-centered system to a people-driven one, and West Virginia must do a better job giving our best and our brightest opportunities by mirroring national success stories like Chattanooga, Tennessee — a polluted city with little investment, to a place that has completely transformed through focus on creative entrepreneurship.
As of 2010, the Creative Class comprised more than 40 percent of the workforce in places like San Jose, Durham, Ithaca, and Ann Arbor, according to the Department of Labor. These places are prospering. They are distinguished by the knowledge-based model of economic development that takes shape around innovation and tolerance.