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OAK HILL — There are plenty of bad statistics about West Virginia.

One of the most alarming? The state’s workforce participation rate is 53 percent — nearly 10 percent below the national average.

Some argue the low workforce rate is because of a lack of jobs; others argue jobs in the state are going unfilled due to the lack of qualified applicants.

“I’ve got employers saying that ‘we can’t find employees’ and I’ve got students saying that ‘we can’t find jobs,'” Frank Vitale told an audience gathered Wednesday at Oak Hill High School. “That tells me that there is a gap.”

Vitale, the CEO of Morgantown-based Forge Business Solutions, visited the school to pitch a project his company is working on — a project to help connect local businesses to local schools in attempt to develop a better, more efficient workforce.

“I will tell you that in my work in economic development that gap is very thin and we can bridge that gap,” Vitale said.

An entrepreneur, Vitale has insight into both worlds, serving on both the West Virginia Board of Education and at the local Morgantown Chamber of Commerce in the past.

He is working to develop “Career Readiness West Virginia,” thanks to a grant his company received from Mountain State Educational Cooperative Solutions.

Working with both local school boards and local businesses, Vitale is hopeful to develop individual programs for different localities based on their strengths and weaknesses.

From the state’s 55 counties, Vitale said his company chose four counties with different circumstances and different potentials. Making a trip of more than 1,000 miles, Vitale has now introduced the project to schools and businesses in Monongalia, Hardy, Wayne and Fayette counties.

The businessman pointed out that each location had its own characteristics — Monongalia County is relatively successful in the state; Hardy County is a rural and agrarian location; Wayne County, adjacent to Huntington, has its good and bad qualities; and Fayette County has potential in multiple industries, including tourism.

According to Vitale, the program, centered around the students, is reliant on input from the school system, local chambers of commerce, private business, public and nonprofit sector employers and the trades, contractors and trade unions.

Vitale believes that students can be connected with employment opportunities through a slew of methods, including workplace tours, career exploration, a speaker bureau, job shadowing, job fairs, internships, externships and integrated pathways.

“There is an ask of each and every one of you,” Vitale said to the audience of business stakeholders. “That ask is for an investment of time and talent.

“If we’re going to move the needle, if we’re going to move it in a positive direction in this community, we’ve got to invest in our schools. We’ve got to invest in the future of our community.”

While older high school and college students sometimes get access to workforce events like those Vitale suggested, he said, flat out, it’s too late.

The entrepreneur said that career development needs to begin as early as possible. He said he believes a child with a focus on the future is much more likely to strive to achieve and stay away from trouble.

With career development often concentrated on career and technical schools, Vitale said that concentration needs to focus on every student — from one who wants to be a phlebotomist to one who wants to be a brain surgeon.

Vitale also pointed out that many in-demand, well-paying jobs oftentimes don’t require a college degree. For example, he said there are 900 open coding positions available in the state.

According to the entrepreneur, half of the empty STEM jobs across the nation don’t require a degree.

While students will need specific skills to fill empty roles, Vitale pointed out the lack of soft skills training, such as public speaking, letter writing and business courtesy in schools.

Fayette County Superintendent Terry George agreed with what Vitale told the audience.

The county’s superintendent said that schools across the nation have lost focus on soft skills education and have saturated the workforce market with too many four-year college degrees.

George said that he wants to increase the numbers of local students in the county’s career and technical education (CTE) programs, which he said teach soft skills along with more technical skills.

“I think 70 percent of our students should participate or graduate through a CTE program,” George said. “Seventy percent of the jobs available for young people out there today do not require a four-year college degree.”

The superintendent gave the example of a former student who started in the workforce as a custodian. With skills in computing, George said the former student now works all over the state installing technology and is making over six figures a year without a degree.

George said he is excited and honored the Fayette County was chosen a part of Vitale’s pilot program and believes that through an improved, young workforce that Fayette County can build back to what it once was.

“We have a tremendous amount of opportunity in Fayette, but we need to get our businesses and our education system working as partners,” George said.