Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories examining proposed cuts to Mississippi community college workforce training programs and the subsequent impact on the state’s economy.
Business leaders across the state are concerned about a proposed budget cut of nearly $40 million to community colleges that would almost entirely eliminate workforce training funds and would leave existing industries vulnerable to low-skilled labor as Nissan skims the best workers in the coming years.
“We’re concerned about the effects proposed cuts will have on our members, particularly at a time when we already have a crisis in the availability of skilled labor,” said John Baas, director of industrial relations for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, an 1,800-member statewide organization that represents 240,000 manufacturing jobs.
Proposed cuts to the state’s 15 community colleges, delivery vehicles for workforce training to business and industry, by the Legislative Budget Office for the FY2002 budget come as a result of a decline in growth of tax revenues for the second consecutive year.
Last year, lawmakers threatened to cut community college funds by $17.7 million, representing a 45% reduction in funding for workforce education centers. The end result was $6.5 million in losses, part of which was workforce training.
“Workforce training is incredibly important to the state’s economic development,” said Dr. Angeline “Angie” Dvorak president and CEO of Mississippi Technology Inc. (MTI), a public/private partnership that promotes and coordinates science and technology-based economic development. “Certainly, the community colleges have been good training providers in the past and will continue to be in the future.”
According to an annual report by the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, 139,681 people were trained for 834 businesses in FY2000, and business leaders have bestowed praises for the state’s workforce training program.
“I can’t say enough about the good training programs the state of Mississippi has,” said Robert Bateman, human resources and training manager for Georgia-Pacific in Oxford. “If we don’t take care of it, or try to water it down, we’ll be in trouble.”
In the midst of rumblings about proposed budget cuts threatening workforce training funds, business leaders in Tupelo are continuing to market the area’s new $13-million Advanced Education Center, a joint venture of the University of Mississippi, Mississippi University for Women and Itawamba Community College — the first time three higher education institutions have joined forces.
“For us to survive with the global competition we have today, if we can’t compete by training and retraining workers through the assistance of our community college, I don’t know how we can survive in Mississippi,” said Bill Vanover, plant manager of Tecumseh in Tupelo. “We have had a very close relationship with Itawamba Community College since we came here in 1975 and without it, we would not be successful.”
Workforce training programs: a major
drawing card for international businesses
As part of the global company’s consolidation plan, Tecumseh, which manufactures pumps, compressors, engines and power train components, is undergoing an expansion at the northeast Mississippi plant, which employs approximately 1,200 people.
Cutting the community college budget would not only squash plans for the company’s workforce training program, but would also send a signal to businesses considering locating in the state, Vanover said.
“Community colleges have been one of the most important — and effective — considerations the business world looks at in Mississippi,” he said.
That’s true, said Dan Grafton, president and CEO of Madison-based Raytheon Aerospace, an aviation and aerospace technical services company that maintains fleets of aircraft and other equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense and federal agencies and employs more than 5,200 employees at 300 locations in 30 countries.
“Our community colleges do an excellent job — I believe other business leaders will agree,” Grafton said. “It is very important that we continue to allow our community college system to equip adult learners with skills they need to earn higher incomes and to raise the quality of life for our whole state.”
Ada Mitchell, director of human resources for Viking Range Corp. in Greenwood, an international maker of professional cooking equipment, said the company values its relationship with the local community college. A majority of the company’s 850 employees work in Greenwood.
“We consider the training provided by the local community college as an asset to the workforce, not only for us, but for other local businesses in the Mississippi Delta,” she said.
Larry V. Johnson, director of operations for Delphi Automotive Systems in Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, said the company’s Brookhaven facility relies heavily on training assistance through Copiah-Lincoln Community College, and that he has counted on Hinds Community College and Holmes Community College for training assistance at the Clinton facility. Both plants employ approximately 2,000 people.
“The training provided by the schools has been very, very valuable for our employees,” he said.
Expansions planned because
of workforce training programs
In Oxford, Georgia-Pacific is sinking nearly $150 million into new building projects. The existing plant will be expanded, and a new one will be built next door, Bateman said.
“Just about all of our 220 employees will have to be retrained,” Bateman said. “If we did not have good state training programs, putting a new facility in Oxford would not have been nearly as attractive.”
Before Georgia-Pacific built the initial $20-million high-tech particle board plant in Lafayette County, company executives expressed concern about the area’s labor force, Bateman said.
“I convinced and promised them that, through workforce development training centers, we could provide the necessary training for this plant,” Bateman said. “Partially based on that, Oxford was awarded the plant.”
Bill Lee, executive vice president of finance at administration at Ridgeland-based NATCOM, which will add 125 jobs this year to its base of 300 employees, said the company’s growth could not have happened without the support of Holmes Community College.
“We have coordinated all expansions with Holmes, put in a training facility at our plant that is equipped with computer-based and electronic-based training, and hired a full-time training coordinator,” Lee said. “The emphasis on workforce training has allowed us not only to grow, but to expand the capabilities we already had. Community college cuts would be very detrimental to our growth because the biggest obstacle we have in adding to the local economy is hiring and training qualified personnel.”
If a $6 per hour worker is trained for a higher-skilled job that pays $8 to $10 per hour, the state will recoup its training money through payroll taxes, Bateman said.
“I hear a lot of criticism about the educational system, such as, ‘If the schools were teaching our young people correctly, we wouldn’t have to train them in industry,’ but I don’t buy into that,” he said.
“Technology is moving so fast that, even if you have an 18-year-old who is 100% abreast of all machines and jobs in industry, in three to five years, he’s obsolete. Employees have got to be retrained.”
Through two classes a week at Northwest Community College, employees at Georgia-Pacific, beginning with the maintenance sta
are learning the metric system, a system all employees will eventually have to master, Bateman said.
Internet-based training an option?
Bill Stark, vice president of sales and marketing of Atlanta-based Mindseek, said the situation with proposed