A new program about to get underway in West Virginia appears to be a badly needed initiative that could help make some headway against two of the Mountain State's more significant problems.
One is the impact of the drug epidemic that has plagued the state for a decade or more. The other is the state's labor force - or relative lack of it - that is often cited as a detriment to strengthening the state's economy.
As envisioned by WorkForce West Virginia, the $10 million program will provide recovery services and job training to 300 people with substance abuse disorder over the next three years.
"At the end of the day, the goal of the project is to get people job-ready and to place them in meaningful jobs," acting Commissioner Scott Adkins said Tuesday during a pre-bid conference with potential bidders for the contract, according to a report by Phil Kabler in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Under the program, participants who self-attest to being affected by the opioid epidemic may receive various services, including working with peer recovery coaches and with career counselors who will match them with job training for in-demand occupations. The program also will offer supported employment with public or private nonprofit agencies, along with other support services.
"The whole purpose of this grant being out here is the opioid crisis," Adkins was quoted as saying. "The whole goal is to get these individuals back to work - back to becoming productive individuals."
That alone is a desirable goal. Tens of thousands West Virginians have been afflicted directly and indirectly by the opioid crisis, either through the misuse of prescription drugs or street drugs. Thousands have died in recent years. And officials charged with combating the issue often cite hopelessness as a root cause leading to many people's addictions. This new program, as explained by WorkForce West Virginia, can help provide the support and training to give up to 300 people the hope enabling them to change the course of their lives in a positive direction.
A byproduct of the program - if it's as successful as officials hope - could be helping shore up the state's labor force, both in terms of numbers and skills. That's an often-talked-about goal of the state's policymakers.
For example, the legislation passed this year to provide free community college to eligible people was in great part aimed at boosting the state's labor force participation rate, which stands only slightly over 53 percent and is the lowest in the nation, as well as boosting the skills of workers.
Just how costly the crisis has been on the state's economy was spelled out in a November 2017 report by John Deskins, director of WVU's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. He estimated among the costs to the state was $322 million in productivity loss due to fatalities and more than $316 million in productivity lost in people who are not working at peak levels because they are addicted to drugs.
Having an available, drug-free workforce with sufficient skills can help attract businesses to the Mountain State. Currently, many employers lament that they have difficulty finding skilled workers or people who can pass a drug test.
That's why this new program makes sense. No, it won't turn things around for West Virginia overnight. But it could help turn around the lives of 300 people over the next few years and perhaps provide a model for expanding that impact in the years to come.