While some hold out hope for a rejuvenated coal industry, most economists, and even some in the business, caution that market forces, not environmental regulations, are behind shrinking employment, and therefore, large numbers of jobs are not likely return to Appalachian coal fields.

However, with a little training, the skills that those jobs require can be transferred to other occupations and West Virginia University is aggressively developing proposals with other institutions to lead or participate in the POWER – Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce Revitalization – initiative of the U.S. Economic Development Administration with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“Energy will always be an integral part of West Virginia’s economy,” WVU President Gordon Gee said. “But it is crucial that we build a nimbler workforce with skills that can be easily be transferred from one sector to another.

“These POWER grants enable West Virginia University to leverage its knowledge and collaborations to help make that happen,” he said.

Two significant grants have already been received: one, working with the University of Tennessee, involving WVU’s Regional Research Institute, and another managed by the Manufacturing Extension Partnership housed in WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

“West Virginia’s significant economic transitions require us to think differently about how best to create new jobs and broad-based prosperity for our state,” said Rochelle Goodwin, WVU senior associate vice president for academic and public strategy. “As we envision our tomorrow, WVU will provide the looking glass of data, thought leadership and strategic analysis that will help bring our future into sharp focus. Working on these POWER grants is just one example of those efforts.”

WVU and Tennessee will use a nearly $350,000 grant to study the consequences of falling coal demand across Appalachia.

“Currently data exist that simply report the losses in direct coal employment across Appalachia. However, there is no existing research that also documents the full economic effect of coal’s decline on communities across Appalachia given a community’s broader economic context, and when considering losses from businesses that are linked to coal through supplier connections and impacts associated with losses at coal-fired power plants,” said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research housed in WVU’s College of Business and Economics.

“Our research will be the first to establish the complete economic impact of coal’s decline across Appalachian communities and, as such, our work will be critical in properly directing any economic redevelopment efforts in coming years in light of coal’s decline.”

The WVU/UT research project will also look at trends in coal production, transportation and coal-based power generation to determine how the coal industry downturn might impact freight rail, barge and truck transportation. Rounding out the project will be an analysis of the impacts of the coal industry decline on human capital resources and development in Appalachia.

Regional Research Institute Director Randall Jackson, principal investigator, said the project is perfectly aligned with the land-grant mission of both universities.

“Our group includes individuals who have devoted their careers to understanding industrial economic systems, energy policy, transportation and human capital. Our research expertise is perfectly matched to project goals.”

The second grant, which includes Pittsburgh-based Catalyst Connection as a partner, will assist companies and workers in several northern West Virginia counties affected by downturns in the coal sector transitioning into opportunities in the region’s growing manufacturing sector.

The grant comes a year after the Economic Development Administration designated a 20-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia as the Greater Pittsburgh Metals Manufacturing Community, which WVMEP and Catalyst will lead. The group includes the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development; the Greene County (PA) Department of Economic Development; JARI, a nonprofit development group in Johnstown, Pennsylvania; and the University of Pittsburgh.

WVMEP Director Gerald Biser said the grant enables the partners to take a “shorter-term view of coal mining supply chains and how we can best intervene, assist and transition existing supply chain companies into new opportunities, markets and customers. We will be performing parallel work with our Pennsylvania counterparts to do everything we can to assist the companies in the northern region of the state with the post-coal economy.”

The affected counties include Preston, Monongalia, Marion, Wetzel, Marshall, Ohio, Brooke and Hancock.

During the initial phases of the project, WVMEP and Catalyst will conduct surveys of coal-impacted workers and supply chain companies, as well as companies in the advanced metals and materials supply chain, to create a supply chain map and needs assessment. They will also be assessing the current broadband capabilities of these companies.

“After we have completed the initial work of mapping the supply chain and developing a capability and needs inventory, we will know what is needed by our clients to move their business forward in new directions,” Biser said. “We will be able to tailor services and trainings for each client to help them move into new product lines or new markets. This may include Innovation assistance to develop new products; ISO and API certifications to enter new markets; or basic process improvement strategies to improve bottom line operations.”

In addition to securing grants individually and with partners, WVU is also working closely with other entities that have received POWER grants to help them maximize the impact of the funding. We have partnered with others on the front end of applying for POWER grants, and have arranged to build capacity and assist in scale up efforts.

A prime example of these partnerships is WVU’s role in a grant of nearly $1 million to the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority for which the WVU LaunchLab at WVU Tech in Beckley will provide broad-based support like training, business coaching and incubation services to entrepreneurs in the community.

WVU is also working to support the efforts of other POWER grant recipients like Region 4 Planning and Development Council and the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in gathering broad community input to create a strategic plan for the Upper Kanawha Valley as the area forges its path to resiliency. And, the University is teaming up with groups like the Coalfields Development Corp. as they strengthen training and class options, refine local market opportunities and ramp up and expand existing work to create jobs, and diversify local economies.

This kind of cooperation and partnership is one reason West Virginia has received about 40 percent of the POWER grants, even though 13 states are eligible for them, Goodwin said.