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Appalachians are disconnected from the workforce. Some think a federal employment program could help

A rural road winds through the Appalachian mountains, past a beige, one-story house, on a foggy day.
Sean Foster
Researchers from the Ohio River Valley Institute argue the Appalachian region is ripe for federally-subsidized workforce program.

A large swath of working-age Appalachians aren’t in the labor force.

The region’s labor force participation rate, or the percentage of the population active in the workforce, lags behind the national average. Researchers from the Ohio River Valley Institute argue that’s what’s behind higher rates of poverty and poor health outcomes in the region.

They believe a federal work program targeted toward hiring people in Appalachia could help.

“The Appalachian region has long struggled with having enough good paying jobs,” said Ted Boettner, one of the authors of the Targeted Employment Report. “And one of the results has been this long term structural unemployment problem that has persisted for decades.”

Coal-country woes 

The lack of strong workforce participation is far from incidental, Boettner said. It’s been a well-documented problem since the 1960s, when the Appalachian Regional Commission reported it suffered from a “legacy of neglect.”

Fossil fuel extraction, like coal mining, left the region’s economy undiversified, according to Boettner. And when those industries began to decline, it left the area without the necessary economic opportunities to sustain the population.

“There just weren't enough jobs to connect people to,” Boettner said. “And this has been bound up in other things as well, like the opioid crisis lately.”

The result is an untapped workforce, Boettner said. He estimates more than 150,000 people in Central Appalachia are working age, between 25-54, but aren’t working or looking for jobs.

Federal help 

Boettner says there isn’t a silver bullet for the employment issues but that a subsidized federal work program would help.

Boettner said the most important aspect would be job training or apprenticeship programs that help people develop skills.

“Those things can have a dramatic effect in getting them connected to the workforce, staying in the workforce, and being able to have a sense of identity,” he said.

A graph shows the labor force participation rate throughout Appalachia and nationally: Central Appalachia (60.3%), Kentucky Appalachia (60.7%), West Virginia (68.2%), Ohio Appalachia (72.0%), Appalachia (73.8%), Pennsylvania Appalachia (77.1%), United States (78.3%)
The Ohio River Valley Institute
The labor force participation rate is the percentage of a population actively working or looking for work. Appalachia and Ohio Appalachian counties lag behind the national rates.

The likelihood of the region getting this sort of program is unclear. Subsidized employment programs haven't seen much movement on a national scale. In 2018and 2021, Democratic lawmakers introduced programs, but didn’t get much traction.

The most recent widespread example is from 2008. Nearly 40 states used federal funds to launch a jobs program in the wake of the Great Recession.

Climate infrastructure

Boettner said the region doesn’t have to wait around and hope for the passage of a federal employment program . Rather, he said, targeted hiring could be happening now on federal clean energy projects.

The Inflation Reduction Act’s renewable energy tax incentives have created around 170,000 jobs in its first year, according to the Department of Energy. Boettner said the projects should use community benefit agreements that require employers to hire locally and provide job training in order to get funding for the project.

Boettner said it’s a win-win: employers still get lots of funding, while the people in the community gain the skills they need to reconnect to the workforce.

“We're not going to launch a national subsidized employment program anytime soon,” Boettner said. “So we want to take advantage of what's right in front of us as well.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.