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Mississippi dead last on list of states ready for ‘new economy’

Mississippi’s ranking of 50th in the country in being prepared for the technology-driven new economy doesn’t surprise state manufacturers who are disappointed that the Mississippi Legislature failed recently to consolidate workforce training programs.

A recent report by the Progressive Policy Institute ranked Mississippi 50th in the country in being prepared for the new economy. The report said Mississippi lags behind in Internet access, white-collar jobs and foreign investment in the state.

“I agree partly with this report,” said Pierre Langevin, plant manager, Alcan Cable Company, Bay St. Louis, an overhead and underground electrical cable manufacturer. “I feel it is very complex for an employer to go through the maze of government programs that are available to help either financially or from an education standpoint.”

The Mississippi Manufacturer Association (MMA) has lobbied to have all workforce training programs in the state consolidated under one entity, the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. While that proposal appeared to have overwhelming support in the business community and among most legislators, it was killed by a key legislative committee head who feared the program might impact high school vocational education programs. The committee head was a former vo-tech teacher.

Langevin said consolidation of workforce training programs would make it a lot easier on everyone.

“I believe there are plenty of good intentions, but we need to simplify the whole delivery process in order to benefit from the resources that are available,” Langevin said. “There is too much competition between the organizations delivering the training programs. Some of them tend to be very, very protective of their turf. This has to change so that no matter where you live you have to access to the kinds of programs that will bring our people up to par with anyone else in country.”

Langevin said his company is definitely seeing more mechanization and computerization in the manufacturing process. That requires more training for employees.

“Right now there is an awful lot of paperwork that has to be filled out in manufacturing process,” Langevin said. “We are trying to have software and computer applications on the floor so employees can interface directly with the computer, and have all this information at tip of his or her fingers. That facilitates data entry, reduces errors, and really makes the job a lot easier for everybody.”

At Alcan sophisticated process controllers are being used that allow for better process control, and more efficiency. Langevin said the challenge is to teach their employees the new technologies so they can program and diagnose machines that have an intelligent processor attached to them.

“That’s the challenge,” he said. “Is it getting more sophisticated for our people? Yes, ma’am.”

Although many employees on the Coast report suffering from a labor crunch, Langevin said Alcan has found that providing highly competitive salaries and benefits attracts quality employees.

“You can no longer maintain low wages when you are requiring people to have a higher degree of skills and sophistication, and are giving them bigger challenges,” he said.

Sam Moore, president of Double G Coatings, Jackson, said it has been a challenge hiring people with the competencies needed to work in a highly mechanized manufacturing facility. Double G is only five years old, so the manufacturing process for producing sheet steel products primarily for the light metal building construction industry was advanced to begin with. But within the past five years the plant has automated a number of tasks within the process that have yielded significant improvements in cost, quality, and consistency. That has resulted in some labor savings, but also raised the bar for technical skills needed by employees.

“Technology has driven us to hire more technically competent people not only to maintain the systems, but to exploit the technology in use,” Moore said. “You would think that if you have a facility that incorporates a high technology, you could hire a broomstick to do the job. But it seems to be going the other way. As systems become more technically complex, more technically skilled people are required.

“We have a very difficult time hiring people with the competencies that are required to function in a world-class facility. There is no shortage of applicants. But there is a shortage of people with the education and experience needed who are comfortable working in a team-oriented environment of continuous improvement, who possess capabilities to learn new things, and who have demonstrated in past employment history tenure characteristics.”

Moore said Double G spends on average the equivalent cost of a four-year degree at Mississippi State in training an employee. So the company doesn’t want to waste that training on an employee who won’t stick around. The company has found that only about 5% of their applicants meet base requirements to become a Double G team member.

Moore said they haven’t reduced the number of people employed as a result of the technology improvements, but have lower employment needs than similar manufacturing facilities where he has worked that have antiquated manufacturing processes.

“We have certainly freed up manhours so they are available for other tasks,” Moore said. “But no person has lost their job at our facility due to technology.”

Ron Garrison, vice president-division director, R.R. Donnelley and Sons, Senatobia, also said increasing mechanization doesn’t put people out of work. Donnelley and Sons, a short run printing company, is currently upgrading and enhancing technology and mechanization. Garrison said that has the potential to provide more — not less — employment.

“We do expect over time we will reduce costs through this type of upgrade and mechanization, but we will not be eliminating jobs,” Garrison said. “We will be increasing the potential for jobs because we will be improving the ability for our business to grow.”

Jerry McBride, president of MMA, said that holds true with most manufacturers in Mississippi. Although increasing mechanization and technology improvements may eliminate jobs in one area, they create jobs in another area.

A survey of MMA membership a couple of months ago listed the inability to hire qualified employees as one of their top two problems. The cost of health care insurance was the other largest concern. McBride said the labor crunch has become so bad that, in some cases, companies are bringing back people who have been fired.

“There are not enough people overall, and not enough people who are trained in the skills needed,” McBride said. “It is a brutal problem on Gulf Coast. There is no relief in sight.”

One strategy being used by state industries is to promote within. A level two employee will be moved up to a level four position, and then the company will go out to hire someone closer to entry level.

“You don’t try to hire the higher people because they aren’t there,” McBride said. “It is hard to find them, and they cost you a lot. The solution is to hire within. You promote within, train, train, train within, and try to make that person happy within the organization.”

Levels of manufacturing employment in Mississippi have remained steady the past two or three years at 240,000. Mississippi ranks fifth in the country in the percentage of people employed in manufacturing at 21.8% compared to the national average of 15.9%.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

About Becky Gillette

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