By William K. Stevens CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In decades past, West
Virginians pointed to the gilded dome of their State Capitol as a
symbol of the cons iderable pride they have always taken in their
But as the coal economy crumbled over the years and the state's
pride with it, the gold leaf peeled off the dome. Gov. Arch A. Moore
Jr. has long wanted to regild it but has resisted because of howthat
might look in a state whose unemployment rate led the nation.
Now, at last, Moore has ordered new gold leaf. He decided to ""go
for the gold'' because West Virginia's unemployment rate, for the
first time since 1982, is not the country's highest and is dropping.
That is the best economic news the state has had in a long time.
The change has come in part because Louisiana is suffering from the
collapse in oil prices and is now No. 1. However, the drop in West
Virginia's unemployment rate has been not just relative but real,
substantial and steady, statistics show.
The reason, economists and officials say, is twofold. Since 1980
thousands of unemployed workers have fled the shrinking manufacturing
and coal industries that once formed West Virginia's economic base.
They have been forced to do so because coal and manufacturing have
undergone yet another contraction, perhaps a final one.
Leaner and more stable than before, those industries are
nevertheless shadows of their former selves when it comes to
providing jobs. Many of the workers squeezed out by this latest
contraction have left the state. Others retired.
At the same time, the service sector of the economy is growing
significantly, creating new jobs for those who remain in the state's
reduced work force. Employment in service occupations grew 6 percent
in 1985, and state officials hope that is a foretaste of things to
What this signifies, say the experts, is that the West Virginia
economy, like that of the Northeast, has undergone a fundamental,
even historic shift in character. The 1980's, they say, has been a
period of painful readjustment to the contraction in mining and
manufacturing. They believe that the worst is over and that the
future lies in activities ranging from tourism to health care to
research to high technology.
The state has barely embarked on that postindustrial road,
however. Despite the dropping unemployment rate, it is still in
double digits: 13.1 percent in February and 11.7 percent in March.
In contrast, the national unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in
February and 7.5 percent in March.
""We were floored - now we're up, but groggy,'' says Ralph
Halstead, an official of the State Department of Employment security
who is highly regarded as an economic analyst.
Still, there is tentative new hope in the state, matching the
fresh, green look of spring that envelops the hills enclosing this
Louisiana surpassed West Virginia in February as the state with
the highest unemployment rate, 13.2 percent, according to the Federal
Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Although the crash in oil prices is cited as one reason Louisiana
surged to the front, the West Virginia improvement is real in its own
terms. In the 13 months through March 1986 its rate dropped by 5.3
percentage points, from a high of 17 percent. Moore expects the rate
to drop to third- or fourth-highest in the country when comparative
federal statistics are released May 13.
The number of unemployed workers has declined by 9,500 over the
last year, according to Dr. William Miernyk, an economist at West
Virginia University. A little more than half the decline, he said,
can be attributed to an increase of 4,800 jobs statewide, the rest to
a further loss of 4,700 workers from the work force, through
retirement, disability and migration from the state. …