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Growth is possible, if WV embraces its strengths

Published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 1, 2017

By E. Gordon Gee

West Virginians deserve lives as soaring and as strong as the mountains that surround us. They deserve the economic security, stellar education and first-rate health care that would allow them to approach life’s starting line on an even footing with all Americans.

For 150 years, West Virginia University has worked to give them access to those essentials. Now, our land-grant mission to advance education, health care and prosperity has become an urgent duty. Our state is facing a crisis — actually, several interlocking crises, from economic stagnation to a devastating opiate epidemic to vast educational and health disparities.

Over the past few months, traversing West Virginia as I do every summer, I saw again that West Virginians share one unwavering quality: We love our state. And we want to move it forward.

To do so, we must overcome three major obstacles.

First, our state suffers from what I have called negative elitism. We in West Virginia have believed our own bad press for so long that we have made negativity into our reality, thus generating even more bad press.

Second, we lack intestinal fortitude. Moving in a new direction might upset the apple cart, and we fear losing or bruising any apples. But fretting over a dwindling harvest makes it impossible to plant new seeds.

Finally, the fear of failure inhibits our willingness to try. But, in a crisis, failure is not as perilous as inaction. In the bleak atmosphere of 1932, presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt urged, “Above all, try something.”

At West Virginia University, we are doing just that.

This year, West Virginia University partnered with the State Department of Commerce and Marshall University to commission the McKinsey & Company in a search for a fresh look at our problems and ways to solve them. Only private dollars, rather than state appropriations, funded this effort.

Together, we have blazed a path that we call West Virginia Forward. And it has three objectives:

Our state has many robust industries that we can grow — such as aerospace maintenance, automotive parts manufacturing and metals manufacturing.

We also have sectors that are growing more slowly here than nationally, but where we can succeed is by differentiating ourselves from the competition. One such area is downstream oil and gas manufacturing, specifically in carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and fine chemicals.

New sectors that the state can capture that promise high growth are cybersecurity, cloud services and data centers, and higher-end tourism.

For example, we are already working to support storage facilities that are critical for attracting petrochemical and related industries to the area. The West Virginia University Energy Institute is playing an important role in that effort.

Another obvious target for development is tourism. We have a beautiful state with tremendous opportunities for visitors to discover and explore. West Virginia Forward gives us data-based solutions for increasing tourism in all our state’s varied regions.

We all love our state. We love its beauty. But when using the metrics through which the outside world judges, the quality of life in West Virginia has been comparatively lower than other states. This limits our ability to attract talent.

That is why a big part of West Virginia Forward will involve working with partners across the state to improve housing availability, road conditions, access to broadband, access to clean water and the health of our citizens.

Our biggest opportunity is also what I have always described as our biggest asset: our people. The people of West Virginia are loyal and hard working.

However, circumstances such as a mismatch between labor supply and demand, the opioid crisis and large waves of out-migration have left that asset in short supply.

If we can create jobs and the space where businesses can thrive, West Virginians will come home. I cannot count the number of West Virginians I have met who would love nothing more than to return to their native state. We must work together to bring them home.

We can do this by building our future talent pool, especially in STEM areas, and expanding vocational training. We need to improve the health and skill of our existing workforce to attract employers, and we need to engage our universities’ alumni to reach out to the talent we have lost.

In this pivotal moment, we must embrace our strengths and tackle our problems in the firm faith that we can make a difference.

Our forebears showed resilience when, as a brutal civil war raged, they created a new state.

In today’s often-contentious atmosphere, we can embrace resilience by applying ourselves to the cause we share.

With our road map in hand, we can proceed in the right direction.

And with true Mountaineer daring, we can move West Virginia forward.