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State must focus on raising per capita income

As I See It

I am privileged to serve on the State Workforce Development Council. Our group, which is composed mostly of business people, is charged by the Legislature with advising state government on issues relating to workforce training.

At our July meeting, we discussed how workforce training might fit into the state’s “new and improved” strategic plan for economic development.

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove plans on calling a special session of the Legislature in the next few weeks or so to unveil his recommendations toward that end. Perhaps some of our thoughts will be beneficial to our elected officials as they are set to make changes in the state’s economic development strategy.

We suggest that the mission of economic development, plain and simply, is to raise per capita income in Mississippi. That’s short and sweet, but I think it says it all.

With our obvious bias, the State Workforce Development Council cannot overemphasize the importance of investing money in workforce training.

Without pointing an accusing finger at anyone, many of our high school graduates are not prepared to enter the increasingly high-tech workforce of today. The state is blessed with an exceptional community college system which is ready, willing and able to conduct programs that will significantly upgrade the skills of Mississippi’s workforce.

In what I believe was an onerous mistake, the Legislature cut community college funding for the upcoming fiscal year. It boggles my mind that everyone, including the Legislature, seems to agree that increased workforce training is a bedrock necessity for improving the lot of Mississippi’s economy, but then, the funding is cut. What?!? Why?!?

It seems that everyone is tuned-in to the theme of “new jobs.” While new jobs are very important, raising the pay level of existing jobs is actually more important. There are far more workers working today at existing jobs than there are likely to be new jobs coming into the state. It therefore seems evident that a substantial measure of the economic development effort should be directed toward existing jobs.

In addition to the traditional quiver of economic development arrows such as infrastructure improvement, tax reductions of all sorts and workforce training, the state would be well served to develop more programs to encourage existing businesses to expand and upgrade.

Promoting increased quality control, use of higher-tech machinery and assistance in arranging the export of products would all be helpful to Mississippi’s existing business community.

Of course, cutting down on the red tape of bureaucratic regulation would be a blessing to business everywhere. Dispensing with the ill-conceived idea of a state department of labor would also be a plus.

In conclusion, here are several specific recommendations that could further economic development in our state.

1. Change the rules to allow skilled craftsmen to teach their craft in the community colleges without requiring education credentials. A good welder can teach welding much better than a teacher who has had some training in welding.

2. Repeal the inventory tax. Since the surrounding states do not tax inventory, Mississippi is at a distinct disadvantage in attracting distribution facilities. With our crossroads location, I believe that the increased taxes resulting from distribution facilities locating here would more than make up for the loss of revenue from repealing the inventory tax.

3. Consolidate workforce training by making the community colleges the sole source for providing such training. The dollar savings from consolidating these efforts in one place would be substantial, to say nothing of the improved effectiveness of having all workforce training programs coordinated by the same organization.

4. Promote standardization of tax incentives to discourage Mississippi communities from bidding against each other for new industry. Many experts believe that the tax incentives given in the past have been excessive and have resulted in substantially reduced funding for local school systems.

So, there you have it. Incomplete for sure, but perhaps some thought provoking ideas nonetheless. Converting from promoting low-wage, low-skill labor to higher-wage jobs will not be easy and will not happen over night. In my judgment, Mississippi is ripe for the conversion and I am encouraged at Governor Musgrove’s initiative in re-defining our economic development strategy.

THOUGHT FOR THE MOMENT

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

— PROVERBS 3:5

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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