Wesleyan Business Survey Shows Workforce Strengths, Weaknesses

By: Cathy Bonnstetter, for The State Journal

Business owners in West Virginia say they believe the state’s workforce is more than prepared to bring ethics and integrity, interpersonal skills and teamwork, along with the capacity for physical labor, to their jobs.

However, when it comes to strategic planning, innovation, marketing, analytic skills or global, international experience, their employees could use additional training, according to results from a statewide survey designed by three West Virginia Wesleyan business professors.

The professors designed the survey to ensure that their college’s business school graduates have the skills and mindset to improve the state’s business climate.

The electronic survey was designed by Susan Aloi, Ph.D., director of the school of business and associate professor of business at Wesleyan; Tracie Dodson, Ph.D., associate professor of business; and Kelly Hughes Sharp, assistant professor of business and director of the MBA program at Wesleyan. The group sent the survey to business owners who were members of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, as well as other business groups.

“We were hearing all these horrible things about the West Virginia economy and the need to diversify and get other businesses to come in,” Aloi said. “What if new businesses need employees with different abilities? We needed to look at current data concerning this.”

The professors first turned to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, but they noted the statistics, although interesting, are regional.

“At Wesleyan, we want to prepare our students for success anywhere,” she said. “However, we have a commitment to the state and region. We wanted something more local in focus.”

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts became involved in the process to identify the majority of the businesses statewide, and the Chamber sent the survey to its 5,000 members.

The survey was open for responses from Nov. 7 through Jan. 15, and 215 businesses responded.

“We were eager to jump on this,” Roberts said. “We want to be aware of what employers are saying their needs and concerns are, particularly when it comes to whom they want to hire.”

Business owners also were asked what skills they felt were important for success. The top response was interpersonal skills, followed by problem solving and critical thinking, teamwork, ethics and integrity, verbal communication and professionalism.

The survey also asked business owners how they see the roles of businesses in their communities. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said businesses should take the lead in collaborating with others to improve the communities in which they operate. Very few respondents said business has no role except to maximize the profit for the owners.

The survey also asked business owners what types of businesses the state needs to court to improve the economy. Business owners said above all, manufacturing, followed by health care, energy and hospitality and tourism.

“I think what surprised me most about these responses was the lack of innovation or new industries,” Aloi said. “What I’ve heard is that it will take a lot of small business solutions, not one big one, to come in and save us. That is what concerned us as far as the level or preparation of future workers.”

Roberts says he understands why manufacturing ranked No. 1.

“States around us have had growth in manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Business people, in particular, realize this. Kentucky has seen a doubling in manufacturing over the past 25 years. Also, we have a history of making things in this state.”

The study divided industry into the following categories: Professional and business services; manufacturing; health services; and leisure and hospitality. Aloi said the survey also added nonprofits to the mix. The fewest responses, 10, came from the Eastern Panhandle.

Aloi said the collegiate team has sent the survey results to the Chamber and other businesses that requested them. In addition, business professors at Wesleyan are using the data.

“We are talking about decisions we need to make with our curriculum — not a huge overhaul, but looking at learning outcomes,” she said. “We are using the data to be sure we are on the right track.”

Roberts said he sees the survey as a great first step.

“There is something to be said for recognizing a problem,” he said. “In West Virginia, we do a pretty good job saying everything’s fine when it isn’t. In the last 50 years, we are the only state to see a population decrease, so clearly, not everyone likes it the way it is.

“We need to go after business leaders’ opinions more often,” Roberts added. “We need to go after them and find out what they think. I applaud Wesleyan for having the good sense to ask.”