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Economic development officials believe Mississippi has made progress this year

Training programs consolidation effort will continue

Complete consolidation of workforce training programs in Mississippi wasn’t accomplished in the 1999 session of the Mississippi Legislature, but economic development officials believe the state has made progress towards putting all the programs under one state agency, the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

“We got part of it this year,” said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD). “We are going to be working on a new bill for the Legislature next year for further consolidation because we feel like it should be in one place under control of one agency so everyone, from someone looking for a job to a someone looking for employees,knows where to go.”

The Legislature approved moving about $7.5 million in training funds for companies expanding or upgrading their workforce from the Department of Education to the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. Heidel said there was no reason for the training programs to be split between two state agencies.

Heidel was chairman of the Special Task for Economic Development Planning created by the Legislature that named workforce training consolidation the top priority for long-range economic planning in a report released in 1998. The intent of the proposed consolidation was to make one agency responsible for both the strategy and implementation of workforce training, and to hold one agency accountable for the results. Currently at least six different state agencies do parts of workforce training.

But opposition from House Education Chairman Rep. Billy McCoy (D-Rienzi) prevented the full consolidation that was sought. About $90 million worth of workforce training programs were subject to consolidation under Senate Bill 2796. McCoy said he was concerned about the impact of consolidation to high school adult education programs, which represent spending of about $284,000 annually, the smallest component of workforce training

In hearings about 40 representatives from industry and government voiced strong support for workforce consolidation. Supporters said improved efficiency of workforce training is key to keeping Mississippi competitive in the global economy.

Heidel said it isn’t unusual to take more than one year to make get major program changes affecting multiple state agencies approved by the Mississippi Legislature.

“We feel good getting part of it this year,” Heidel said. “We hope to get part of it next year, and eventually all of it should be done.”

Heidel said the U.S. Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 which is designed to consolidate federal workforce programs. He said that program will take a year and a half to implement, and will impact training programs in Mississippi. Once it is clear how the Workforce Investment Act will be implemented, it should be easier to make decisions about consolidation of Mississippi programs.

Pete Walley, director of the Bureau of Long-Range Economic Planning, University Research Center, Institutions of Higher Learning, said there has been some confusion about the relationship between the state and federal efforts at consolidating workforce training.

“The governor has named a new board created by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998,” Walley said. “That bill is seeking to streamline some 14 federal programs on workforce development into a comprehensive, one-stop process effort to support the workforce. There is some confusion about how the state and federal efforts will relate to each other. The key that shows interlock is that approximately five members of state Workforce Development Council, which is the advisory committee to community college training, will also be on this new Workforce Investment Board, which is the federal coordinator effort.”

Walley said the federal coordination effort involves programs other than just workforce training such as job placement, unemployment insurance claims, and labor market information databases. He said those 14 programs in the past have been disconnected in that they were run by at least three state agencies. Now the idea is to have them streamlined under the Workforce Investment Board.

Part of the concern about the proposed consolidation was the belief by some people that too much was being moved at one time. Walley said some people believed that the consolidation should be phased in over a period of time.

“This is a good first step,” Walley said. “We have made good progress. But I do want to make the point that we still have to put a stronger emphasis on the development of our workforce. That is our best short-term hope to remain competitive in the global economy.”

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