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Training the answer to lowering unemployment, some say

Manufacturing job losses in state raise concerns

Mississippi relies more heavily on manufacturing than many states, so it should come as no surprise that when manufacturing jobs go, it is cause for concern for many.

“I don’t say it’s getting any worse, but it’s still down,” said Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. “Some folks are saying we’ve turned the corner but not one manufacturer out of 10 or 15 I’ve talked to in the past few days has given me a good report.”

About a month ago, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Jerry Jasinowski, said the decline in industry production shows that manufacturing is dead in the water. This same sentiment is shared by McBride.

“Some of it unfortunately is not coming back because these plants are being closed and they’re moving production away,” McBride said. “Through May 20, we’ve lost approximately 6,400 manufacturing jobs in Mississippi since the first of the year.”

This is related to several different occurences, according to McBride: the economic turndown, increased productivity, increased energy costs and the legal climate in the state.

“I don’t want to infer that this is all Mississippi and that we’re an island having problems,” he said, and cited Pennsylvania, Alabama and North Carolina as several states that have recently lost manufacturing jobs.

“I think the common consensus is that we’re going to have higher-level, more technical jobs in the country, and to do that we’re going to have to have higher degrees of education and more competent employees. They’re not going to survive on jobs that require no skill. Those jobs are going to go to a country that pays a very low wage.”

Christian Pruett, economist for the Institutions for Higher Learning, said when the North American Free Trade Agreement came along in 1994, it opened the door for many companies to leave the U.S.

“We’re more dependent on those type jobs,” he said. “These are jobs that unfortunately Mississippi will never get back. More so than the U.S. and other states, Mississippi depended on those jobs.”

Pruett said although much of the economic downturn is cyclical, the problems in Mississippi are a result of structural problems more than anything else.

“In the ‘90s, the economy shifted to the Internet superhighway technology and Mississippi is having to keep up with that,” he said. “We’re going to have to go after some of those jobs and that’s going to require massive skill upgrade in Mississippi to do that. Our future workforce will not only be prepared today but in the future.”

Pruett expects the economy to begin to turn around toward the latter part of 2001, and said people seem to be looking upwards nowadays. In fact, consumer confidence in the state recently went up slightly, but at the same time business confidence fell.

“There is some fear about the future, but for the most part I think we’re realizing the economy will turn around at the end of the year,” he said.

Greg Robinson, chairman of the MMA board, said his business, Robinson Chemical Coatings Inc., has felt the downturn in sales a bit. “Sales are still okay,” he said. “But it’s taken the growth out of a lot of things. I think what will happen in the future is that increased productivity will be the key word everywhere.”

Like other Mississippi manufacturers, Robinson believes the state, like the rest of the country, is moving from smokestack type manufacturing to more technical manufacturing processes.

“The terms technology and manufacturing are synonymous in most places and most industries,” he said. “Skilled is a key word there but I really go back to productive workforce. We’re going to have to work smarter, and this goes for management too, it’s not just production workers. We’re going to have to do a smarter, more productive job.”

For the 25 years Robinson has been in business, his company has been lean. His customer base is manufacturers, who he says are now looking at their processes and their companies and making strides to improve productivity.

“I know that word gets old, but that leads to profit which leads to a healthy business which leads to expansion,” he said.

Automation is now the standard for many companies, Robinson said, and Mississippi needs a workforce that can handle automation efficiently.

“You may have two or three or four robots but someone has to program them and do maintenance on them,” he said. “I think you’ll see what I’m talking about when Nissan opens. Production work will be different than what people think.”

There is still a place for hard labor types though, Robinson said, but it will be a more sophisticated type of hard labor. But what about the people who have worked all their lives in an apparel plant, sewing pockets onto pants and the like?

“Those people are not unskilled,” Robinson said. “They have a tremendous work ethic and the ability to learn new things. They can be trained and retrained. The problem we have is people who are underemployed.”

Robinson ultimately has faith in the Mississippi manufacturing industry.

“I think we’re focused very much in the right direction,” he said. “The things that are probably going to happen, you’ll see manufacturing and a lot of other things growing in Mississippi.”

For now though, the unemployment rate in Mississippi is a staggering 5.3%, and according to Pruett, it is bound to go even higher.

“The obvious answer is we need to fix this and upgrade these skills and get these people in the classroom, but how you do that is the hard part,” he said. “That’s the burning question that we have to answer, otherwise the state will continue to see struggles heading into the future. I don’t know a clear answer other than to say that if I were in their shoes I’d try to find a way to upgrade my skills to go elsewhere. I can’t sit by and wait on another apparel plant to open or another job even of that nature to open to go back to work.

“I don’t want to make it sound like the state’s sinking, get out the lifeboats, everyone run while you can, but unfortunately the clear answer is not cut and dry.”

Dr. Wayne Stonecypher, associate executive director for programs at the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said training for existing business and industry is needed, as well as training to attract new business and industry.

“We’ve got to enhance the skill levels of people in Mississippi,” he said. “We’ve got to just expand the types and the depth of courses and programs we offer.”

If people do simply drop out of the workforce instead of getting training for other jobs, this will have a negative impact on the economy, Stonecypher said.

“I think we have to look at jobs that pay above average wages and provide resources that allow for training in the workforce,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a generation or more to get the skill level of Mississippi citizens to where we can compete with the top echelon. I don’t think there’s any question that a skilled workforce is the key and I think we have to be selective in what we recruit and make a concerted effort to meet training at basic and advanced levels to meet those needs.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.


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