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Workforce training funding remains stable, but demand grows

When news has been bad for a long time, solace can be taken from just staying even. Intense lobbying has preserved level state funding for workforce training in Mississippi at present, and that is considered a victory in light of the state’s continuing budget difficulties.

Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation, said thus far the state has been able to provide adequate funding to provide workforce training for existing and new industries.

“We had very few problems,” said Heidel, former co-chair of the state Workforce Development Council. “As far as what is happening with my new companies, Nissan suppliers Calsonic and Yorozu, the state community college board has set aside enough to handle the training to get them opened. Both are opening in May. It seems like they are in pretty good shape. I haven’t heard of anyone being told that there wasn’t any money available for them at this time. It appears we are going to make it through this year okay. I don’t know about next year.”

Heidel said the biggest concern has been existing industries either taking on new product lines or new technology and having adequate workforce training money to train or retrain people.

“If you look at what Yorozu and Calsonic are going to be doing, they are into some of the most sophisticated robotics that exist,” Heidel said. “Their technology is very advanced. They have donated a machine to Hinds Community College for training. The private sector is working with the community colleges to make some things happen. The Vicksburg branch of Hinds Community College has done an excellent job with training and stretching the dollar as far as they can.”

Gary Beadles, director of workforce development, Community Development Foundation, Tupelo, agreed that current needs are being meet.

“All of the training that we have been involved with has all been basically underwritten by the state,” Beadles said. “From our standpoint, anyhow, we have not been adversely affected. I think the state has risen to the challenge. Workforce training is very important. We have put close to 700 area employees through lean manufacturing training. Lean manufacturing provides methodologies to reduce manufacturing costs and waste in the manufacturing process. That in and of itself helps them remain more competitive. I have a 40-year background in industry, so I have an appreciation of just how important this training is. I think it is doing some good.”

Funding has remained stable for workforce training for the past several years. But the demand for training has increased significantly, said George Walker, former president of Delta Wire Corp., Clarksdale, co-chair, state Workforce Development Council and chair of State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

“The demand for training has increased with business economic expansions,” Walker said. “Therefore, on a relative basis, we have fallen behind. But in the actual number of dollars, we are even. We have very strong programs taking place right now of putting the Mississippi State Workforce Training Program, which is a result of the Mississippi Workforce Training Act of 1994, in a cooperative mode with the federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998. We feel very strongly that the cooperation potential between the federal act and the state act with training through the community colleges and other sources could result in an improvement of workforce training throughout Mississippi. If we can totally facilitate the cooperative mode of the federal and state training programs, then there is no question the employees of Mississippi, for the present and the future, will be much better served.”

The importance of workforce training is particularly heightened in manufacturing due to the large number of job losses in the recent years.

“Anyone in manufacturing is obviously in a tough, competitive situation,” Walker said. “The best weapon available to businesses or manufacturers is undoubtedly workforce education because with technical capabilities, both the quality and cost can be improved in a competitive position that would strengthen industry throughout the state. I honestly feel to attain economic development and retain our manufacturing base, there is absolutely no question that workforce training and technology training are the best methods we have to achieve those goals.”

Nationwide about two million manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years, more jobs than were lost during the Great Depression. Walker said the loss of manufacturing jobs is particularly significant in Mississippi because the state has one of the highest percentages of manufacturing jobs of any state.

The state’s business climate is also affected by funding for higher education. Education as a whole is a top concern of the business community.

The Mississippi Economic Council is conducting a program called

“Mississippi Express” to get input from state business leaders about the most important issues the state chamber of commerce should lobby for. At stops in Jackson, Meridian, Starkville and the Gulf Coast, business leaders indicated that education was their top concern.

Higher education fared better this year in the Legislature.

“By funding education first and providing $1.2 million over fiscal year 2003’s funding, the Legislature reversed a three-year trend of cuts totaling $100 million,” said Dr. Pamela Smith, assistant commissioner for public affairs and development, Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL). “This has prevented another tuition increase and makes a major statement that education is after all a priority. Please note that K-12 received an increase in their funding to continue adequate education and the teacher pay plan. Our faculty and staff will have no salary increase in FY2004.

“We stress that this effort took a great deal of courage by the Legislature and we suggest that it is a precedent for the future. We need a Legislature coming in 2004 that places the same priority on education and begins to restore the funding IHL has lost. Why? We have had record enrollments for seven consecutive years. Mississippi Valley State University, the University of Mississippi and Jackson State University have had significant increases during this time and all universities need to replace faculty who have left. We have essentially level funding for next year and still cannot travel or buy equipment as we need to. We are still short $100 million.”

Faculty salaries that are on average $7,000 per year behind the Southeastern average continue to be a concern. Since 2000 the number of faculty leaving the state has increased by 30%.

“The record high was last year with 430 leaving,” Smith said. “The jury is still out on how many will leave by fall 2003.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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