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As I See It

The Mississippi Business Journal’s editorial focus this week is employee development and training. This subject is among the most important in Mississippi today.

In general, Mississippi’s workers — whatever the job — are paid less than comparable workers in other states. Here are some statistics to illustrate our situation.

• Mississippi’s per capita income is $23,000, which is 25% below the national average.

• Manufacturing workers earn roughly 67% of the U.S. average.

• State and local government employees earn about 70% of the U.S. average.

Manufacturing and agriculture are the backbone of Mississippi’s economy. The state has lost more than 27,000 manufacturing jobs in the last two years and experts think we will lose another 13,000 over the short term. Not only do our manufacturing workers earn less than other workers in that sector, but we are losing the jobs anyway.

In my view, education is the culprit that holds Mississippi back. Our workers have not embraced the age of technology and their skills are outdated. And what makes the problem worse is that they don’t know it and are not interested. Let’s face it, Mississippians do not hold the importance of education and skills training in high esteem. Here are some more statistics to further illustrate our plight.

• Only 78% of Mississippians over 25 years old have a high school diploma.

• Approximately 42,000 students enroll in public schools each year while only 26,000 graduate each year. What happens to the 16,000 who fall by the wayside?

• Only 47% of the students who enroll each year in our eight public universities graduate.

• Only about 8% of Mississippians 25 years old and older pursue further education or job skills training.

Our problem is twofold: our workforce lacks the skills to perform higher paying jobs and they either don’t know that there are options for improving their situation or they don’t care. Until we convince workers that education and training is a lifelong process we will continue to rank dead last.

On the surface, Mississippi prospered during the booming 1990’s just like the rest of the country.

Or did we?

Is it possible that the economic boom resulting from the introduction of gaming to our state masked the fact that the technology boom was leaving us behind? I think there is good reason to believe that is exactly what happened.

What can be done? I have a suggestion that I wish was original, but it’s not. My good friend, Dr. Pete Walley, director of Long Range Economic Development Planning at IHL, gave me the idea that just might improve our education situation in Mississippi.

Let’s sell the value of lifelong training to Mississippi residents just like Nike sells its shoes. Let’s advertise. Advertising is used in the private sector as a tool to create demand for products and services. Why not use advertising to create demand for knowledge in our workforce?

There is precedent for governmental sponsored advertising to benefit certain groups. We have an Egg Marketing Board whose purpose is to promote and market the increased consumption of eggs. We have a Beef Council that promotes the consumption of beef. Why not a Training and Education Marketing Board to promote the importance of upgrading the skills of our workforce?

I believe that a rising tide does, in fact, raise all boats. I further believe that to create the economic tide in Mississippi that would raise per capita income for all workers, something has to be done differently. My mother says that you can lead a goose to water, but you can’t make him drink. However, if you convince the goose that he’s thirsty then he will drink.

Spending public funds to create demand for better worker skills would be an investment that would pay dividends forever. If the state led the way, I believe that private funds might also be raised to expand the project. By doing so, we just might break the cycle of ignorance, poverty and government dependence that continues to bog our state down.

Thought for the Moment — I believe that the second half of one’s life is meant to be better than the first half. The first half is finding out how you do it. And the second half is enjoying it.

— publisher Frances Lear (1923-1996)

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

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