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As I See It

Everyone even remotely exposed to business news knows that Mississippi has been losing manufacturing jobs in droves the last year.

Estimates are that we have lost as many as 25,000 manufacturing jobs over the last several years, with many of those losses occurring in the economically depressed Delta.

Are manufacturing jobs special? Should we worry more about losing manufacturing jobs than other jobs?

The answer is yes!

Economists have long known that real economic growth comes from manufacturing, mining and agriculture. Therefore, if we swap a manufacturing job for a service job we lessen the chances that the economic pie will grow larger. Growing the economic pie is the only way to raise per capita income and improve the standard of living for all Mississippians.

Why are we losing manufacturing jobs? I don’t profess to know the complete answer, but I do know one factor that is likely an issue in many of the jobs leaving our state. First of all, many of the lower paying jobs are leaving because they can be performed equally well by even lower paid workers in other countries. There is nothing that can be done about this — it is a fact of life in a global economy.

Putting aside the loss of lower paying, lower skill jobs for a moment, the force that seems to be working against us with the better jobs is the education level of our workforce. Purely and simply, many of Mississippi’s workers don’t have the basic education required to perform the increasingly complex jobs of today’s manufacturing workplace.

According to the National Institute for Literacy, 30% of Mississippi’s adult citizens are illiterate. That means 30% of our adults can’t read and follow the simplest instructions. Mississippi ranked second only to Washington, D.C., in having the highest illiteracy percentage in the country.

Is having 30% of the adult population illiterate important? Here are some national statistics that will make the answer self-evident. Illiterate adults work an average of 19 weeks per year and earn about $240 per week when they are working.

Forty-three percent of illiterate adults live in poverty, compared to 4% of the population as a whole. Seventy percent of prison inmates are either illiterate of nearly so.

Most would agree that it would be imbecilic to suggest that being illiterate is unimportant. How can the average Mississippi worker hope to perform the high-tech manufacturing jobs that we so desperately need if they can’t read or write? The simple answer is they can’t.

Where does that leave us? In a bad situation, I’m afraid. All of the selling of our state that is done by the Mississippi Development Authority and all the tax incentive packages our communities put together to attract industry will come to naught if our workers cannot perform the jobs.

We must commit ourselves to do all that is within our power to stamp out illiteracy in Mississippi as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the lower paying jobs that are being lost to Mexico and other countries will not be replaced and our attempts to raise the standard of living in Mississippi will fail. Harsh words I realize, but sometimes the truth hurts.

There are various groups working in our state to solve the illiteracy problem. In some cases, there is a problem of motivation on the part of the illiterate. We must aggressively address any intransigence on the part of those who cannot read and try to motivate them to want a better life. Our state leaders must determine which programs are the most effective in solving the problem and commit major resources to stamping out illiteracy in Mississippi.

Illiteracy is a major threat to the future of our state. Most of the adults who are in the workforce now will still be there 20 years from now. Absent some effective solution to the problem, those who are illiterate now will still be illiterate then. Just imagine how much more complex the workplace of the 2020s is going to be compared to that of today, and I think you will agree that illiteracy is unacceptable and must be eradicated from the Magnolia State or we will face increasingly dire consequences.

Adult literacy training is available throughout the state. Governments, schools and nonprofits offer it. I can think of no higher service that one could perform for our state than to actively encourage literacy for every resident of Mississippi.

Thought for the Moment — No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. — Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

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


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