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Counties see amazing growth and change

Labor market a hot topic among economic developers

Challenges in the labor market and industry trends are among hot topics with economic developers across the state.

The fastest growing county in the state, DeSoto County, was recently ranked seventh in the nation by Demographics Journal, and regarded as the county with the highest growth potential of 841 metropolitan counties in the U.S., said Jim Flanagan, president of DeSoto County Economic Development Council.

“The county really set the foundation in place in the mid-50s with school consolidation, and implementation of the first land use controls in the state,” he said. “It has enabled us to keep up with the infrastructure demands this type of growth has placed on us.

“So many projects are interested in being located in a 30 to 50 mile radius of a major international airport. Because of our proximity to the Federal Express facility, we enjoy an 11 p.m. (drop-off) for next day delivery. DeSoto County is also located in a commercial freight zone in Memphis and is blessed with an interstate network and major US highways,” Flanagan said.

A strong and diversified manufacturing and economic base is made up of 120 companies with an average expansion of 10 to 12 per year.

“We have a strong incentive package coupled with the state`s incentive package competitive to neighboring states,” he said.

“A number of distributing companies that had previously looked at Shelby County see DeSoto County as a viable option because of the distribution advantages and tax incentives.”

Spousal employment opportunities for casino workers and their families have brought more workers into the workforce. Community colleges are keeping pace with implementation of tech-prep and skill-prep programs, Flanagan said.

Rankin County continues to lead the state with the lowest unemployment rate of a 12-month average of 2.3%, said Tom Troxler, executive director of Rankin First Economic Development Authority.

“We`re also leading the pack with the highest average household income,” Troxler said.

According to the National Data Service, the average household income in 1997 was $58,733.

“We`ve been alternating with Lafayette County for the lowest unemployment rate,” he said. “Our economic development growth will be very strong for the next 10 to 20 years. I look for more retail to follow the housetops and incomes that are out here.”

A plus to business scouts is the pool of well-educated workers in Rankin County, Troxler said. “We have very good public schools.

“Surprisingly, the Pearl High School shooting incident has not been brought up (by prospective business employers) and I have been quite pleased with that.”

Better pay, subsidized childcare and flextime are recommendations for Forrest and Jones counties, according to a recent labor study, said Mitch Stennett, president of Economic Development Authority of Jones County.

“With a tight labor market in Jones County, our unemployment rate has been below 4% for close to 24 months,” Stennett said. “In the job manufacturing market, people are more mobile and are jumping from job to job more often. One recommendation for employers to counteract this trend is to start looking at new types of benefits for employees.”

One local industry with 200 employees recently started paying for health insurance, Stennett said. However, another employer, who hired 75 new workers in the past three months, has only five remaining from the original group.

“It is remarkably tough, because employees will go for a dime more an hour or a little more of an incentive somewhere else,” Stennett said.

Mothers with children who have not traditionally been employed outside the home could reenter the labor market with childcare provided, or at least, subsidized, Stennett said.

The proposed Industrial Child Care Bill, which died in committee, called for four pilot counties – Alcorn, Coahoma, Jackson and Jones counties – to qualify for low-interest loans to build child care facilities through economic development groups partnered with local industries, Stennett said.

“We had the private sector, educational and economic development elements in place,” Stennett said. “Two of our largest employers, Sanderson Farms and Howard Industries, were going to team up with our community college that has a child care training program.”

Flextime would allow non-traditional employees, such as college students, to work in service and manufacturing industries, Stennett said.

The importation of international labor, particularly in the Hispanic market, is a trend in the labor market that will continue, Stennett said.

“The labor trend started in the poultry processing industry, but has spread to several other industries,” Stennett said. “We`ve known that Mississippi has been in the global market for a long time but I think it hits you between the eyes when you go beyond just exporting some of your products to actually hiring foreign labor.”

Businesses are accepting very well, but sometimes the people in a community have a hard time accepting it, he said.

“People in the community expect everybody to speak English and they expect things to be done one way and foreign workers are used to doing it another way,” Stennett said.

A local church actively seeks Hispanics and provides an interpreter during church services, he said.

“One of our local industries that hires a lot of Mexican laborers is deducting housing rental from paychecks and paying rent directly to the landlords,” Stennett said.

“Landlords are assured of getting their money and the laborers don`t have to worry about it.”

Inventory reduction and increased reliance on transportation is a growing trend, he said.

“Folks don`t keep a lot of inventory because they have to pay for it to be warehoused so transportation will be even much more important than it is now,” Stennett said. “People will order something one day and want it to come in the next and sell it, so the turn is going to be a lot quicker.”

Education and training, especially for computers, will be vital for employees to have good jobs that pay decent wages, he said.

“Skills may change from year to year, so lifelong learning is very important,” he said. “For example, we`ve got to have people who know more than how to hunt and peck on a (computer) keyboard to actually do something on a computer,” he said.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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