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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Interview : Workforce Development In the Appalachian Region

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

An Interview with Mrs. Gayle Manchin, Federal Co-chair of Appalachian Regional Commission

August 8th, 2022


Discussion Summary:


Students who receive technical training certifications in high school are granted the option to enter skilled jobs in the workforce straight after graduation.


Through its connections with local businesses, employers, and participation in grant programs, the Career Academy helps local students find on-the-job training opportunities within their desired fields even if they do not take classes at the Career Academy.


To ensure that the school’s curriculums remain applicable to workforce demands over several years, the Career Academy’s administrative staff actively participate in economic and educational boards.


How does the economic and geographic history of Appalachia place the region in particular need of assistance via education and investment?


The Appalachian Regional Commission’s founding dates back to the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy came to West Virginia—my home state and the only state entirely located within Appalachia—to campaign for the Presidency. While there, he noticed the disparity between our region’s economic opportunities and the rest of the country. He also noted the lack of access to the region, which led him to declare that, “No community is an island, cut off from the rest of America.” It’s that ethos—that all American communities deserve equal connectivity and opportunity– that led to the founding of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965, and continues to shape the work we do to bring economic parity to the Appalachian region’s 13 states, 423 counties, and 26 million residents.


Since the Commission’s founding, we’ve made great strides toward building a better Appalachia. The regional poverty rate has been cut by more than half. Counties that received ARC investments saw employment and per capita income increase at a 4% faster pace than in similar counties that did not receive ARC investments. With President Kennedy’s initial goal in mind, we’ve completed 91% of the Appalachian Highway System that connects our communities. In addition, the percentage of adults in the region has nearly tripled since 1960. And students in Appalachia now graduate from high school at nearly the same rate as the national average. However, we know there’s still work to be done and are committed to bringing equity to the region- the zip codes of Appalachia’s residents should not define their destinies.


Educating Youth/Adults


How do economic, education, and industries representatives work together to craft applicable career training or introductory curriculums for the ARC’s academies?


My background is in education, and my entire career has been devoted to expanding education and collaboration. I believe that education is an ongoing endeavor—it begins at birth and lasts a lifetime. At ARC, we are lucky to have partnerships with a number of educational institutions around Appalachia, from Eastern Tennessee State University, which is home to our Appalachian Teaching Project, to Appalachian State University, which hosts our Appalachian STEM Academy every year.


But we also acknowledge the important roles played by the region’s community colleges, trade schools, and small universities many of which are ARC grant recipients. They are critical in educating and diversifying our skilled Appalachian workforces. In fact, community colleges have never been more essential to workforce development than they are now. There is a real value in the ability of these smaller education institutions to be flexible and adjust curriculum to meet a workforce need. And I appreciate that community colleges recognize that there isn’t just one pathway to learning—post-secondary education isn’t just about our 4-year institutions and isn’t just for recent high school graduates. People from all walks of life and career backgrounds deserve the same access to learning and career advancement.


I’m reminded of when aviation manufacturer Bombardier opened in the North Central West Virginia city of Clarksburg. They worked with an area community college to provide manufacturing training to former coal miners who had been displaced from, when it their jobs. What they found was that the miners were exceptional students—their backgrounds had given them the mechanical skills needed to thrive in a new role. Thanks to the partnership between Bombardier and the community college, by the end of the first year of training 12 displaced miners had new careers with opportunities for advancement. This is a great model of how, when it comes to career training, Appalachia’s educational institutions are at a pivotal point to be involved in their communities.


How does the ARC design career training to address the struggles of those facing structural or frictional unemployment? (Such as those recovering from substance use)


At ARC, we are laser-focused on developing a network of employment supports and recovery-to-work programs that help Appalachians recovering from substance use disorder. Substance use disorder affects all communities around the country—but it disproportionately affects Appalachia. It’s an epidemic that’s affecting our friends, our families, our neighbors. It only worsened during the COVID pandemic due to lack of access to treatment, counseling, and social services. We at ARC recognize that substance use disorder is a community challenge that requires a community solution. Employers need to take a chance on hiring employees in recovery, but we must also all come together to provide a support system for our neighbors—including connecting peer support networks, criminal justice entities, recovery communities, job training, and employers. That’s where ARC’s INSPIRE grant program comes in. INSPIRE—which stands for Investments Supporting Partnerships in Recovery Ecosystems—helps support initiatives for individuals who are recovering from substance use disorder enter or re-enter the workforce. Since it was established in April 2021, ARC’s INSPIRE program has invested more than $15 million in 49 recovery-to-work projects in almost 200 Appalachian counties.


Investment


How does the ARC’s infrastructure investments (transportation, municipal services, energy, broadband) make economic growth possible for individuals and/or communities?


At ARC, we know that infrastructure and economic development go hand in hand. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the challenges our Appalachian communities face when it comes to broadband and infrastructure. Students couldn’t connect to their online classes, workers couldn’t connect to work from home, and patients couldn’t participate in telehealth services. One of the core tenets of ARC’s current strategic plan is to build Appalachia’s infrastructure. Over the next five years we will work to ensure that all Appalachians have access to reliable and affordable infrastructure to successfully live and work in the region. This includes making sure Appalachians have access to quality broadband services—a necessity to compete in a modern global marketplace—all the way to the last miles of our rural roads.


ARC was founded because of a need for interstate highway systems but now we must prioritize a new highway—the broadband highway—in order to bring equity to the region. Building infrastructure not only enriches the lives of the people in Appalachia, but also allows others to experience the beauty of our land and the rich culture of our people.


How has the ARC’s investment in social welfare services (healthcare, housing, childcare) helped the success of individuals in the career training process?


At ARC, we talk a lot about economic development. While we may use that as an umbrella term, it’s really just a way of saying that, at the end of the day, it’s all about our Appalachian people. We know that the foundation of economic vitality starts with investing in those people, especially when it comes to education, training, and professional career development. Another of the pillars of our current strategic plan is to build Appalachia’s workforce ecosystem. That means that we are working to expand and strengthen community systems—like healthcare, housing, and childcare—that help Appalachians obtain a job, stay on the job, and advance along a financially sustaining career pathway without having to leave the Appalachian region.


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