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Skilled Mississippi workforce could meet IT personnel shortage

Mississippi poised to capitalize on IT, telecom growth

JACKSON — The increasingly visible presence of Mississippi in the communications information technology (CIT) arena provides opportunities for the state to capitalize on the infrastructure that exists in the state.

“These are certainly exciting times because of the possibilities for information technology and telecommunication businesses,” said Dr. Willie Brown, vice president for information technology at Jackson State University.

“Mississippi in a lot ways is poised to become a leader in some of those industries with businesses like WorldCom being headquartered here. We are positioned to do a lot of great things. We just have to make sure we take advantage of that potential.”

There is currently a nationwide shortage of IT personnel. One of the most important strategies to grow the industry in Mississippi is providing a trained workforce. Brown said there are a number of important initiatives to promote training programs in the state. Jackson State’s School of Engineering will begin offering computer engineering classes this fall and programs in telecommunications engineering will follow in the future.

Another effort to promote the industry is the establishment of a steering committee on CIT clusters.

Billy Mounger II, chairman and CEO of Tritel Inc., a digital wireless service provider based in Jackson, said the CIT cluster group could help attract and retain IT employees. Now a large percentage of engineering graduates from state universities leave the state to find jobs. But with more companies to choose from for employment, Mississippi should be able to retain more of its best and brightest.

The companies in the CIT cluster could serve as role models for startup businesses.

“My interest is trying to help other companies repeat or do the same kind of thing we’ve done,” said Mounger, who is chairman of the CIT cluster steering committee.

“My vision is that there will be many other startup companies in Mississippi that will create more jobs and bring billions of dollars worth of value back to Mississippi.

“If we’re going to move from our agrarian roots into the new economy of the 21st century, this is what has to happen. The vision of the CIT cluster group is to facilitate existing and new companies to build and succeed, to think big, to think globally. I want to inspire people to do even more than what we have done. I want people to be excited about what they can create, and have the mentality that there is no limit to what they can do here.”

Mounger said plans are being made for a venture capital meeting where participants will get advice on how to do business plans and obtain venture capital. The meeting will provide the opportunity for similar businesses to share their successes, and mistakes.

Also in the works is a business plan competition for students in Mississippi universities who would submit actual plans for new businesses. The winner would receive venture capital to pursue the business plan.

The CIT cluster could also make potential employees more aware of the opportunities in Mississippi. Cellular South president Hu Meena, who serves on the steering committee, said the main advantage he sees to a CIT cluster is that it will increase competition for services of those working within the industry.

“Competition is a powerful thing, and it will make all of us who are in the industry do what it takes to train, develop and attract information technology professionals to Mississippi,” Meena said. “Competition drives us all to do better in the endeavors we choose to pursue.”

Meena said his job takes him throughout the U.S., and he has found Mississippi has an excellent name in telecommunications. He said when he tells people he is from Jackson, Miss., it catches their attention.“They are familiar with the Jackson area and the companies that are here, and it is an asset to be from Jackson,” Meena said. “We need to leverage that position and continue to build the telecommunications industry in Jackson.”

John Spivey, chairman and CEO of Vention, an e-commerce solutions company and a member of the steering committee, said that the thrust of the CIT cluster organization is to model it after other successful clusters such as those in Silicon Valley, Memphis and the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

“Those clusters have succeeded in attracting both public and private money to pull together resources that exist in a region like this,” Spivey said. “We need all kinds of incentives to attract the talent we need to grow our business. We need something like this cluster movement to help attract the employees we need. It is a group of like-minded companies with like-minded problems that support each other and talk about what they need.”

Don Minors, president and CEO of the Institute for Technology Development (ITD), a non profit corporation established to help create technology-based economic development in the state, sees the CIT cluster as a specialized chamber of commerce. ITD did a survey of the Central Mississippi area and found there are already 300 businesses in that field. A cluster is defined a business located within a geographic area where people can travel back and forth in one day for meetings.

“For our cluster formation we found the names of people involved in IT businesses and invited a sampling of them to come in and form a cluster organization to talk about how they can make the environment become better for them to grow,” Minor said. “We believe that there is a lot of potential to build on the computer information technology business segment in our state, and we know some things that are holding us back.”

Studies have indicated that other areas with CIT clusters have thrived because there are significant advantages when an aggregate number of businesses are located in the same area. The philosophy behind the clusters is to find strengths and build behind them.

Some other potential cluster areas ITD has identified for growth potential are:

• Space remote sensing on the Coast due to the research and capabilities of Stennis Space Center.

• Advanced material areas like polymers. The area of emphasis would be centered around

Hattiesburg because of the polymer science research strengths of the University of Southern

Mississippi.

• Super computing. Some of the largest computers in the world are located at Mississippi State

University in Starkville, at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, and at the Stennis

Space Center on the Coast. Minors said the state has a real strength in computational analysis

which gives businesses here the capabilities to deal with technology faster than a lot of areas of

the country.

• E-commerce.

“I think we have to get ready for e-commerce, and that opens up some real possibilities for us,” Minors said. “One challenge is to make sure we get the information highway brought to all the communities in Mississippi just like we want highways and railroads to be there. It opens up a marketplace that is much larger for those businesses in their communities than a 50-mile radius from where they are located. Whatever disadvantages we might have had in the past in Mississippi because of the market around us suddenly becomes changed by electronic access to markets all over the world.”

Minors said a lot of work remains to be done to make sure the state is competitive. ITD is working with the governor on the new economic development plan to encourage the initiatives needed to support and improve the technology industry in the state.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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