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Lack of skilled labor in W.Va.

September 18, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The new Internal Revenue Service computing center east of Martinsburg requires about 350 database managers, software specialists and other skilled workers to run its high-tech computer systems.

The problem is finding skilled workers to run them.

The situation has become so common that the local IRS complex has set up a training program so new employees can run the center's operations.

Employees spend up to three weeks in classroom training and are then given on-the-job training that can last up to three years, said Chuck Koeneke, public affairs officer for the IRS.

The program is effective, but the downside is that it splits the time of qualified managers, who act as "coaches" to bring workers up to speed, said Koeneke.

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"We have faced this for years. It's just that it's getting more intense now," Koeneke said.

The problem has caught the eye of state officials, who are worried that the Eastern Panhandle will not be able to compete effectively with other states in coming years if the region does not have enough skilled workers.

"You can't have economic growth if you don't have a skilled workforce," said William Vieweg, commissioner of West Virginia's Bureau of Employment Programs.

Vieweg told Gov. Cecil Underwood during a Cabinet meeting in Shepherdstown, W.Va., on Sept. 2 that the state needs to find ways to bring more skilled workers into the Panhandle.

Part of the effort will be developing a computer database where employers and qualified employees can find each other, Vieweg said.

Through the database, employers could list information about what they do, their location and what type of job skills they are looking for, Vieweg said. Employees could list their names, skill level and other background in hopes of making a successful connection with an employer, said Vieweg.

The result, perhaps, is that more workers will have to transfer to the area from other states to fill the need for skilled workers, said Vieweg.

Vieweg said his agency is currently working on developing the database and it should be available no later than July 1 next year.

Meanwhile, businesses in a variety of fields continue to deal with a lack of skilled workers.

Royal Vendors, a soft-drink vending machine plant just west of Charles Town, W.Va., is struggling to find skilled workers like tool and die makers and electricians to build its machines, said Mike Weirzbicki, vice-president of manufacturing.

"It doesn't seem like we're training them," said Wierzbicki.

Wierzbicki said he doesn't want to start an argument with public schools, but it seems guidance counselors are pushing students to go to college and not letting them discover vocational trades.

If the problem of the skilled labor shortage continues, Royal Vendors will probably have to turn to automation to replace the jobs it cannot fill, said Wierzbicki.

"Right or wrong," the emphasis has typically been to convince high school students to attend college, said John Rose, assistant superintendent for instruction for Jefferson County Schools.

"I think we're just waking up to the realization that every student doesn't want to go to college," said Rose.

That is one of the reasons Jefferson County Schools is considering building its own vocational technical school. The Jefferson County Board of Education is considering a plan to either build a free-standing Career Technical Center or locate it inside Jefferson High School.

The James Rumsey Technical Institute in Hedgesville, W.Va., offers a range of vocational courses, but many Jefferson County students do not take advantage of them because it takes up two class periods to drive back and forth from the school, Rose said.

Last Wednesday, the Berkeley County Board of Education presented its plan for shaping the future worker to local employers during a meeting at One Valley Bank. The board said local schools will start working with students as early as kindergarten in an attempt to determine their career interests.

The effort to keep students focused on possible careers will continue through their schooling, and will eventually involve connecting students with potential employers in the community, said Larry Stratmann, who attended the meeting.

"I'm hoping they can make it happen. We've had better days," said Stratmann, director of human resources at City Hospital.

With new employers moving into the area, City Hospital has had to stay on its toes to make its jobs as attractive as possible so workers will not go to other companies, Stratmann said.

The problem cuts across all types of business.

The Wal-Mart store at the Martinsburg Mall is constantly looking for people to fill its 460 positions. Part of the problem seems to be that most workers in the area have found good-paying jobs, leaving the discount store with fewer skilled workers, said a personnel manager who did not want to be identified.

"I'm just hanging on," she said.

Other companies, however, have not experienced trouble with workers.

Dalb Inc., which does a lot of the silk-screen work for the vending machines at Royal Vendors, prides itself in a clean environment and good benefits and wages to attract quality workers.

"I think we're one of the more fortunate in the county," said Chris Ott, personnel manager for Dalb, where about 150 people work.

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