Targeted Employment: Reconnecting Appalachia’s Disconnected Workforce

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Hard-working Americans are the engine of our economy. We want to do well for ourselves and our families, but too many of us who want to work – especially in Appalachian communities that have been left behind – are not able to find a job. And when millions of people can’t find jobs, it holds back our entire economy.

The Appalachian region has long suffered from not having enough good paying jobs. Even when the unemployment rate is low, too many Appalachians are disconnected from the workforce entirely due to a myriad of factors. The result has been a long-term structural unemployment problem that has persisted for decades, with too many Appalachian adults out of the workforce entirely and unable to secure a decent paying job where they live.

A federal job subsidy program that is targeted at breaking down barriers to employment – such as improving the skills and experience of potential workers to meet current employer demands in their local labor market – and connecting them with a job could not only boost incomes and improve the livelihood of thousands of Appalachians but also give people self-esteem, a source of identity, and feel more connected to their community.

This report examines the economic conditions of Appalachia with a particular focus on the Appalachian counties of four states—Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—that comprise the footprint of ReImagine Appalachia and the Ohio River Valley Institute. This includes describing how Appalachia has been a “region apart” from the rest of America, including its history of resource extraction and exploitation, the collapse of the steel industry, and now coal, that has led to large employment losses in the area, and how the region’s uneven development has led to chronically low rates of employment, disenfranchisement from the labor market and even loss of hope underpinning the opioid epidemic from which the Appalachian region was particularly hard hit.


Key Findings:

  • Despite the immense wealth buried in the hills of Appalachia, and the intensive exploitation of coal and other resources by absentee corporations, the region spanning West Virginia and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) counties of Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania continues to have below average economic growth, high rates of poverty, and low labor force participation.
  • Coal country Appalachia has a critical need for more employment.
    • In Appalachian Kentucky, 34 of every 100 prime-age men (aged 25-54) are not employed. In West Virginia (all of it in Appalachia), and in Appalachian Ohio and Pennsylvania, 27, 23, and 19 out of every 100 prime-age men, respectively, are not employed. Nationally, 17 out of every 100 prime-age men are not employed.
    • If prime-age people in the Appalachian parts of these states were employed at the same rate as the nation, an estimated 206,000 more people would be employed, earning over $6.4 billion more in wages annually.
    • In 16 out of 193 Appalachian counties in these states, less than half of prime-age men are employed.
  • Subsidized employment programs in the New Deal employed millions of people performing socially useful work and gaining income and dignity. Rigorous evaluations of subsidized employment programs in the past 40 years, including at the state level, find that these raise employment and earnings.
  • Coal-country Appalachia needs Congress to seize the opportunity through a national subsidized employment program to match disconnected workers at scale with an almost unlimited amount of socially useful work. This should include work reducing carbon emissions as part of a new Civilian Conservation Corps.
  • In the near term, federal climate and infrastructure legislation will create millions of jobs. A portion of these jobs should be used for targeted hiring of disconnected workers with the help of community-labor partnerships financed by a small fraction of project funds. By deploying best practices in recruiting, screening, pre-apprenticeship training and other social supports, these partnerships can help more targeted workers permanently reconnect to the workforce. They can also learn valuable insights about how to break down barriers to employment that should be incorporated into a national subsidized employment and revitalized CCC equal to the scale of the need for jobs in coal-country Appalachia.