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Workforce training cannot be sacrificed

As I See It

It is no secret that the economy is slowing down.

Tax collections in Mississippi are far below expectations. Whether this will be a major slowdown or a soft landing is anybody’s guess. Belts are being tightened in both business and government.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) has met and prepared its recommendations for the upcoming legislative session, which convenes Jan. 2nd.

Though these are only recommendations, they hold a lot of weight with the Legislature.

Though there really are no big winners when the budget is tight, some agencies suffer more than others. Education is a mixed bag; K-12 has a projected spending increase of over $62 million while community and senior colleges are slated to take a $93 million hit.

Other departments with large spending increases include social welfare (Medicaid), corrections (prisons) and debt service (Nissan).

While I applaud the Legislature’s determination to keep the state’s books in balance, I am disturbed by the projected cuts in higher education. Many, if not most, Mississippians realize that education is the key to moving our state off the bottom of the pile. Our increases in spending on education over the past few years have been noted by the rest of the country. Now is not the time to back-peddle on our commitment to educating Mississippi’s young people and training our workforce. We must move forward at all hazards.

With the economy slowing, it is only natural and conservative to back away from increased spending until we see what is going to happen. As natural and comfortable as this may be, it is the wrong choice when it comes to education and training.

Looking only at the subject of worker training, the JLBC recommendations would cancel the gains we have made in recent years. In fact, it would provide only half the funds that were available in the current year to train and re-train our workers.

The $31 million in projected general fund cuts for our community colleges plus the elimination of $7 million in HB400 dollars would cripple our ability to train workers for the higher-paying, higher-tech jobs of the New Economy. Once again, Mississippi will move to the back of the line.

This impact would be felt not only through reducing the flow of new jobs into the state but would also be devastating to our existing industries. Nissan was emphatic on negotiating a commitment for worker training as part of their package of incentives.

Now it is sad but true that Nissan will receive ample and generous access to worker training while our existing industries will get slashed.

The new girl in school gets all the attention and Nissan gets all the training dollars.

Unfair! Unfair!

Let me be quick to point out that I fully support Gov. Musgrove’s efforts and success at landing the Nissan plant in Madison County. Nissan will be a good addition to our corporate citizenry and I am pleased that they are coming.

I am equally pleased that we have other world-class manufacturers in place in Mississippi. One can hardly watch a music program on TV without seeing the stage cluttered with Meridian-made Peavey guitars, amps and sound systems.

Similarly, Greenwood’s Viking Range has set new standards in the area of top-of-the-line kitchen appliances.

Billy Howard and family have launched a bold new initiative in manufacturing state-of-the-art computers in Ellisville.

All of these companies are heavy users of state-supported workforce training.

Kohler has said that the state’s commitment to workforce training was key to their decision to locate in Hattiesburg. The same is true of Tecumseh in Tupelo and Orek Manufacturing on the Gulf Coast.

Are we now prepared to tell our existing industrial citizens that they will be afforded no state-supported worker training while the “new kid on the block” will get all they wish? I find this a difficult proposition to explain and support.

One of the primary goals of economic development is raising the per capita income for our citizens. If this goal is not achieved all others pale in comparison.

Only through increasing the per capita income can families and communities prosper. Training is the ticket to higher per capita income.

There is no other way to get there.

The Legislature is faced with a formidable task in trying to allocate scarce resources among competing departments. Their job is not enviable in any year, particularly this one. Nonetheless, we can never escape from the bottom of the economic pile unless our workers are armed with the skills required to handle today’s New Economy jobs.

The Legislature simply must get the marbles out of someone else’s bag and fund workforce training at least at the level achieved last year.

Thought for the Moment

It is not enough to share laughter, art, music, poetry and all the good things in life. We must be there for those in despair.

— Alma Lyons, a physician’s office

bookkeeper in Bremerton, Wash.

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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