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Workforce training issues at heart of development debate

Want high-tech, high-pay jobs? Invest in education

Educators and business leaders, eager to find out how the state’s new economic development plan will focus on workforce training and its role in raising the per capita income in Mississippi, may not agree on a definitive plan, but insist investments in advanced skills training are a necessity to attract — and keep — business and industry.

“If we want to move the state’s economy toward higher-paying, high-technology jobs, workforce training is singularly important to that process,” said Dwight Evans, president and CEO of Mississippi Power, president of the Mississippi Economic Council and co-chair of the Mississippi Partnership for Economic Development. “Attracting high-tech jobs and industries to the state should not be our only goal. We also want to ensure that we seek high technology applications for the jobs and industries that already have a strong presence in Mississippi. We have a strong community college, junior college and university system in our state that can readily adapt to these changing needs and is, in fact, already making strides in that direction.”

Accomplishing that goal will require a major investment, said Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College, the state’s third largest college.

“If we are going to train this workforce for better-paying, high-tech jobs, then we’re going to have to be willing to invest in advanced skill training in our community colleges because new technologies create intense competition for business across the country,” Muse said.

“Any economic development plan must have, as one of its centerpieces, a vision of a highly-trained, technically-skilled workforce for business and industry. If we look at what attracts business and industry to locate — and stay — in the state, we think about a lot of incentives, but one thing’s for sure: if you cannot provide a highly-skilled workforce that will enable that business to be locally competitive, they’re not going to stay. Neither are they going to come. In many cases, economic developers either don’t communicate, or either internalize, that fact because after the hunt, the big question is: do you have the ability to train my workforce?”

Johnny Franklin, director of special projects for the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, said the state must first analyze its economic development activities, their effectiveness and compare it to what other successful states are doing.

“The plan must be unique to Mississippi, not a copy of another state’s,” he said. “For any economic growth to take place in Mississippi, we must have an educated and trained workforce. Everyone who speaks on or everything you read on successful economic development efforts, says this is a common requirement. At some point we must stop the rhetoric on this issue and develop a plan for accomplishing it. What must we do, what changes must occur for Mississippi to insure a prospective business or industry that they will have an educated and trained workforce?”

Pamela P. Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi State Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, said raising the state’s ranking of in-home computer and Internet access is imperative to workforce development. Only 25% of Mississippians have computers in their homes, and only 13.6% have home Internet access. Alaska has the highest percentage of households with computers at 62.4%, and the highest home Internet access at 44.1%.

“On the technology side, we are 50th in the states for access in the home to the Internet,” Smith said. “That’s going to be a major part of workforce development as we move forward. Not just e-mail, but access to the Web. Through an organized effort like the one the governor is working on, there is much more we can do in research, and in working with businesses, to make sure they have the skilled workforce we need. We are so anxious to get involved in this. We have very skilled people at these campuses teaching or doing research that directly relates to that goal and we just have to get it organized.”

Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said many options should be considered.

“Whatever choices we make, at the core, there must be an increasing role for training and education,” Ray said. “Without that, we cannot succeed. We must start concentrating more on training for advanced skills positions if we’re ever going to raise the per capita income in the state and be competitive with the rest of the nation. We cannot continue to train people to do routine, normal jobs.”

According to the U.S. Commerce Department Census Bureau report released last month, Mississippi led the nation in service industry job growth between 1992 and 1997. Gambling provided the state with a 66.9% gain in employment.

Controversy surrounds the education of casino workers in an industry that accounts for nearly 35,000 jobs in the state. In FY2000, the 8% gaming tax will generate about $150 million, or 4.4%, of the general fund. Yet Mississippi’s colleges cannot offer courses needed for its workforce without legislative approval. (Please see related story on page 12 of this week’s MBJ.)

“Gaming is a major employment source,” said Ray. “The state needs to be involved in the training picture for gaming-specific professional programs just as we would for any other business.”

Before new training programs can be successful, Mississippi’s workforce must be motivated, said Gary Blair, president of Batesville Tooling & Design, Inc.

“I’ve always had a deep desire for self-improvement, but I also had to be teachable,” said Blair, who started his business in 1991 after working for many years in a manufacturing plant. Last year, Batesville Tooling & Design was recognized by the Mississippi Business Journal’s Fast 40 program as one of the state’s fastest-growing companies.

A mentoring program could be an important element in the state’s plan, Blair said.

“People need mentors, not just figureheads, who will critique tasks accomplished for enhanced repeat jobs,” he said. “Employees need the proper time to achieve proficiency in a particular area before moving on, and to work in an environment that matches their personality.

Editor’s note: This story is part four in a series of articles examining the revamping of Mississippi’s economic development strategy. In the coming weeks, the Mississippi Business Journal will take a look at the forces driving the state’s economy into a new century.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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