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Metro Valley Magazine

In January, Bill Bissett took over as president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association. Bissett's former positions include serving as state director for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), leading the Huntington Area Chamber of Commerce, and serving as president of the Kentucky Coal Association. In 2020, Bissett was inducted into Marshall University's W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications Hall of Fame. Robert Saunders spoke with Bissett recently about his new role with the WVMA.

Congratulations on your new position. What do you hope to accomplish with the WVMA?

Bissett: We want to continue to provide a voice for manufacturing in West Virginia. As a native West Virginian, this is an exciting time to be in the WVMA because of all that's happening, whether it's nearby in Mason County with Nucor, whether it's Berkshire Hathaway, or whether it's Form Energy — there's a manufacturing renaissance going on. Large companies are seeing that our state is a place where they want to do business. From everything we're hearing, both from within the Capitol and beyond, additional announcements are coming. As somebody who saw the attrition of manufacturing in our state, to see this rebirth is exciting.

How big is the LG announcement?

Bissett: I thought that was especially exciting because of the nature of it. There's often a degree of skepticism that comes with economic development announcements. But these will be R&D facilities, idea factories that will create what's next, LG. The fact that they want to set them here, that they want to benefit from the big brains at our postsecondary education schools — especially Marshall and WVU — I just think it's a tremendous opportunity. One of the greatest puzzles we're trying to solve in West Virginia is holding onto our best and brightest. LG is going to give new opportunities to our young people. What should we prepare our workforce for? Bissett: It is a tremendous concern. I think we've made bold steps to correct it, but we have more work to do. When you consider the "last dollar in" (i.e., West Virginia Invests) scholarship for community and technical education — that's a great program. We need to keep removing impediments, both to the workforce and to postsecondary education. And I'm not necessarily referring to a four-year degree. It could be a two-year degree or 90-day credentialing — anything that adds value and allows a person to have a greater income and more stability in their employment. We tend to do poorly in every age demographic when it comes to workforce participation. But the other thing is, we have so many opportunities now with those companies I mentioned. My goal is to make sure as many West Virginians as possible — and future generations — can take advantage of these opportunities.

What about energy diversification?

Bissett: We have to find ways to provide manufacturers with the energy and resources they need. We are sitting on a tremendous amount of natural gas, but at the same time, there is often criticism of building more pipelines. This can also be an opportunity. If environmental activists don't want pipeline deployment across state lines or across waterways, then perhaps we can lure companies here within our borders to take advantage of our natural resources. I think you're going to see a lot of changes in how we create electricity — not just in West Virginia but in our country. You're going to see things like small modular reactors (SMRs) and more deployment with solar and wind. But the coal industry, whether you're talking about metallurgical coal or steam coal, continues to do well. That said, the one constant in the energy business is change, and we need to prepare for that. At the end of the day, whether you're a large manufacturer or a consumer, when you hit that switch, you want the lights to go on.

You mentioned SMRs. Do you support nuclear energy?

Bissett: Absolutely. If you can employ West Virginians, and do it in a safe and responsible way, then we need to consider nuclear. Not long ago, the Legislature removed the ban on nuclear energy development. There is a growing interest in nuclear among energy experts. For one, it addresses climate change; also, we are looking at a smaller, more controlled technology. But there's still a long way to go with that.

What would you like to see come out of the 2024 Legislature?

Bissett: I think there is a lot of talk about the issue of child care, a lot of discussion of incentives, and getting a better understanding of the issue. Earlier, I mentioned impediments to joining the workforce. I think child care is a major factor for parents seeking gainful employment, especially if it's shift work. A lot of our employers simply don't have the resources to offer their own child care facilities. Partnerships might be a solution in some areas. But the role of government in removing these impediments is becoming a bigger question. It's a problem across the United States, not just here in West Virginia.