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Should state train for jobs not here, or wait for them to come, then train?

Chickens or eggs?

RAYMOND — In rural areas, information technology workforce development has been called a chicken-or-egg proposition. Train for jobs that don’t exist? Or wait for jobs to come and then train?

“Whichever route you follow, there has to be a promise — a hope for better jobs,” said Dave Boliek, president of ExplorNet.

That’s the topic that was debated at a public information gathering hearing in Raymond last week by the 21st Century Workforce Commission in Washington, D.C. Business and community college leaders made up two panels that presented various solutions to one of the state’s most important issues.

“About 16 people testified on various aspects of building the information technology workforce and debating the best method to take,” said Jay Diskey of the commission. “In Jackson, there is a question about how to take the program to rural areas and bridge the digital workforce divide. We heard so many different opinions; it’s hard to single out one particular method. They were all good.”

After wiring about 40% of all classrooms in North Carolina with Internet access, ExplorNet initiated pilot programs in Mississippi — Hollandale and Laurel — that was funded by Congress through the U.S. Department of Education. In Laurel, Howard Computers is a key partner “because the program supports them by providing a technologically capable workforce,” said Cindy Howard McCoy, president of Howard Computers.

“ExplorNet focuses on rural communities because we see technology as a major way to level the playing field,” said Boliek. “But we realize we can’t just wave that magic technology wand and fix all of rural America’s problems. Our rural communities face four major economic challenges — jobs, infrastructure, training and expectations. Jobs are not there. Technology bandwidth is not there. Most rural residents simply don’t expect they can participate in the digital economy.”

Dr. Howard Sanders, superintendent of Hollandale School District, located in a rural Delta community of less than 5,000 people, said the school district jumped at the chance to become one of two pilot sites in Mississippi.

“As more and more parents and students become aware of what this program is about and with the instructor placing a great deal of emphasis on providing students with skills they need to make a living, either directly out of high school or in a post secondary program, we expect this project to double in size over the next year,” Sanders said.

Rural communities often cannot get the bandwidth to support technology-based jobs, he said.

“We have included an economic development component in our mission,” Boliek said. “The goal is to provide economic developers tools that show how local schools make their community attractive for technology-based economic development. Jobs range from call centers and help desks to programming.”

Jerald Brunson, plant manager of Hollandale’s ABTco, a Louisiana-Pacific company, said the landscape of North Mississippi has been transformed in the last 20 years from dairy farming, row crops, casino gaming, light manufacturing and distribution centers to one based on manufacturing and service-related industries. As a result, low skill-set jobs needed for an agrarian workplace have disappeared.

“Our struggle is to replace those jobs by creating a labor pool that will attract higher technology companies to north Mississippi…and to the state,” he said.

In the last 10 years of hands-on manufacturing experience, Brunson said he’s seen turnover rates at multiples of 100%, potential employees that cannot read a tape measure to the nearest quarter inch and high school graduates that could not function beyond a fifth grade level. In the last five years, 1,862 people at 17 companies were tested for competency levels: 37% passed at an 8th grade or better level, he said.

In 1997, when ABTco considered purchasing a closed Sunbeam manufacturing plant in Holly Springs, the decision was difficult because of the education level of the existing workforce. Because of assistance from the Northwest Community College and the Workforce Development Center, the company decided to acquire the plant, he said.

“The turnover rate (has been) less than 40% for the first two years,” he said. “A computer training room was opened with 10 computers and both ABTco employees and Holly Springs residents have been and continue to be trained in programs from basic keyboarding MP2. (There’s been) continuous improvement team training for all Holly Springs employees and selective training in supervisory skills, first aid, CPR, team building, electrical, hydraulics, facilitator skills, forklift, general safety, blood borne pathogens, (and) remedial classes in math and reading.”

In the last six months, several suggestions presented to the State Workforce Development Council include a program to include industry in the development of school curriculum, mentoring programs and a program to bring teachers into business and industry to help them understand what is expected of students once they graduate, he said.

“Unfortunately, until one concerted effort is made to replace schools that are rapidly deteriorating, replace or train teachers that are not proficient in the subjects they teach, and develop curriculum that requires students to graduate with measurable usable skills, rural Mississippi will not be prepared to compete in the information age of the 21st century,” Brunson said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or mbj@msbusiness.com.


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