- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia University researchers are forecasting continued high unemployment in West Virginia.

The WVU College of Business and Economics released its annual West Virginia Economic Outlook report Thursday at a conference in Charleston.

Fueled by a decline in the coal industry, West Virginia’s unemployment rate in August was at 7.6 percent, the highest in the nation. Gains in the state’s oil and gas industry failed to offset job losses in the coal industry, the report said.

The state unemployment rate is expected to remain at or above 7 percent through early 2016 before falling under 6 percent by 2019, the report said. Job growth is estimated to increase by an average of 0.5 percent annually through 2020, far below the expected growth nationally of 1.2 percent.

The state oil and natural gas industry is expected to add jobs at an annual rate of 3.1 percent average annual rate, although growth should be concentrated in the 2017-2020 time frame. Coal industry employment is expected to fall at a rate of about 1 percent per year through 2020, the report said.

Researchers said only 53 percent of the state’s adult population is working or looking for work, the nation’s lowest rate of labor force participation.

Residents’ average incomes are currently $36,600 per year, 21 percent below the national average. West Virginia’s per-capita incomes are expected to increase by 1.8 percent over the next five years, lagging behind a predicted growth rate of 2.3 percent nationally. State growth will be driven largely by non-wage income such as Social Security benefits.

WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research director John Deskins told the Charleston Gazette-Mail (http://bit.ly/1GnW535) that the state must become more attractive to businesses by investing in the job skills and health of its residents.

“I argue for a top-to-bottom examination of economic-development policy,” Deskins said.

Based on current production rates, the report said coal companies in West Virginia are expected to mine about 104 million tons in 2015, the lowest output since 1977 and 1978, when labor strikes pushed production below 100 million tons. And despite low market prices for natural gas and few new wells starting production, natural gas production is expected to rise at more than 10 percent annually.

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.

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