KINGWOOD — A study done for the I-68 Regional Economic Partnership lays out Preston County’s strengths and weaknesses, where the jobs are and where they are likely to be in the future.
The study looks at each of the counties located along Interstate 68 individually and collectively. That’s Monongalia and Preston in West Virginia, and Garrett and Allegany counties, in Maryland.
The study was done by TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, and Seattle, which has more than 20 years experience in looking at communities across the U.S. A $48,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and total local contributions of $48,000 funded the study.
TIP lists Preston’s assets and advantages as;
- Rural quality of life with easy access to four metro areas.
- Proximity to high-quality, affordable healthcare and a major research university.
- Highway access (I-68 and U.S. 50).
- Outdoor recreation amenities and natural scenery.
- Coopers Rock State Forest, Alpine Lake and Preston Country Club.
- Low cost of living
- Among the lowest crime rates in West Virginia.
- A strong CTE trades program.
Preston has a civilian labor force of 15,100, according to the study, and a 4.9 percent unemployment rate. Total population in 2017 was estimated at 33,679.
Looking at employment by industry, the top four areas for Prestonians, in order, were healthcare and social assistance, construction, retail trade and (civilian) federal government. Those are projected to remain at the top over the next five years.
Mining, including oil and gas, was 21st in the list of 22 occupations.
Median salaries in Preston tend to be below the U.S. Exceptions were in education, training and library; protective service; construction and extraction; farming, fishing and forestry. The highest salaries in Preston were in architecture and engineering, and computer and mathematical.
“That’s good and bad,” Preston County Economic Development Authority (PCEDA) Director Robbie Baylor said. “It’s good if you’re trying to attract a company to say that what you have to pay your employees here is a little less, but not good for the employees, for sure.”
Most of the workforce in Preston falls in the “experienced working age” of 35 to 64. Forty-eight percent of the workforce has a high school or equivalent education. Fifteen percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Seventy percent of the 11,915 Prestonians working in 2015 commuted to jobs outside the county, TIP found. The biggest outbound population was in the healthcare field.
Another 3,539 lived and worked in Preston, and 2,814 people commuted to Preston County to work — all in government or agriculture.
Looking ahead, there will be demand for construction laborers, retail salespeople, and heavy and tractor-trailer drivers, TIP said. The latter two face mass retirements soon.
The county specific recommendations were based in part on driving through the county, Baylor said. “Some of this is you go, ‘Of course, we know this,’ and then there are things in here where I went, ‘Never really thought about that.’
Recommendations by the consultants included establishing stronger lines of communication between the community and large employers, recognizing their contributions and tapping into their networks to recruit others.
Allegheny Wood Products, USP Hazelton and Camp Dawson are specifically mentioned as companies the partnership needs to help grow and stay in the county.
TIP suggested managing the county’s image online by regularly updating its Wikipedia entry and working with organizations to provide up-to-date info on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Wikipedia, it notes, is often the first place people look for information on a county.
The group also suggested helping a community college to establish a presence in the county, launching a leadership program, establishing a networking group for young professionals and aligning veterans with employers.
Leveraging highly skilled retirees, veterans and business leaders to support small business through business coaching, mentoring and networking are also suggested.
Copies of TIP Strategies’ reports on Preston and other counties on I-68, as well as the overall report, can be seen at the PCEDA office, 330 E. Main St., Kingwood.