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As I See It

Not so long ago trying to strike up a conversation about workforce training was a losing proposition that usually resulted in looks of bewilderment and not much else. To say the least, the issue was not the subject of coffee break chitchat.

But since it’s an election year, everybody is singing the workforce training song. Things are changing and the changes are for the better.

Workforce training was the subject of gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour’s first press conference several months ago. Barbour called for increased cooperation between the federal Workforce Investment Act programs and the state-supported Workforce Development Council. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has made attracting higher-paying jobs a centerpiece of his administration and training is a required ingredient to attract those kinds of jobs. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck included workforce training as a basic plank of her re-election campaign. Politicians of every stripe are piling on the workforce training bandwagon.

Hallelujah, I just love it so!

Why all the interest in a mundane subject like workforce training? The state is slowly realizing that a trained workforce is one of the most important assets a state has to offer prospective employers and to encourage existing employers to remain in the state.

The Mississippi workplace scene is changing rapidly and steadily. We are losing low-skill jobs and gaining higher-skill jobs. Over the past couple of years those job gains and losses have just about cancelled each other out. Unfortunately, not with the low-skill workers moving into the higher-skill jobs. No, what has actually happened is that the workers getting the new jobs have been stripped away from other employers and the low-skill folks are taking other low-skill work or remain unemployed. The reason — they don’t have the skills to move into higher paying work.

It’s not just the folks who have lost their jobs to foreign competition that need to improve work-related skills. A recent survey conducted by the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce indicates a high level of employer frustration in trying to find qualified, productive employees.

In late 2001, the MetroJackson Chamber was one of four chambers in the nation to receive a grant from the Center for Workforce Preparation to participate in their pilot Workforce Academy Demonstration Project. Joining the Chamber as partners in this endeavor were the Mississippi Economic Council, Hinds County Workforce Investment Network, Southcentral Mississippi Works and the Mississippi Technology Alliance.

The employer survey was a requirement for participation in the project.

What did the survey reveal about employer attitudes toward their existing employees and recruiting new hires? Seventy-seven percent of the survey respondents said they had severe to very severe problems in trying to hire qualified workers. Forty-eight percent reported significant problems in recruiting or retaining qualified workers in the skilled trades and technical areas. Fifty-one percent said job applicants have poor or no employment skills.

With respect to current employees, 61% said their employees performed their jobs fairly well. Not great, mind you, but fairly well.

Almost 91% of the respondents have never utilized the services available through the WIN Job Centers. That’s truly a remarkable statistic! The federal government spends millions and millions of dollars each year to provide job assistance to both employers and workers and the vast majority of the responding employers were not even familiar with the centers.

My friends up North tell me that Mississippi lags far behind other states in our commitment to lifelong learning. Somehow, it just isn’t part of our culture. Thus, we get some basic education in school and expect it to be sufficient forever. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. What we need in Mississippi is a renaissance of learning throughout all age groups, income and skill levels. Then, and only then, can we hope to move our state forward in preparation for the arrival of the increasingly higher skilled jobs of the future.

Will we have a learning renaissance any time soon? I doubt it, but it doesn’t hurt to be optimistic. I do think that the emergence of workforce training as a political issue will benefit the state. So, maybe creating a hunger for knowledge is a little farfetched, but a gradual improvement in job skills for our workers may become reality.

On October 22, the MetroJackson Chamber and its partners in the Workforce Academy project are holding a forum on the state of workforce development in the Central Mississippi area. The objective is to bring together business, political and workforce leaders to discuss the current situation and plan for the future. For more information, contact Lewis Slater at (601) 948-7575 or check the chamber’s Web site www.metrochamber.com.

Fall is here and the smell of workforce training’s in the air. As this topic continues to get increasing publicity I believe its importance to the state will become apparent to more people, action will be taken and we can move ourselves farther into the new economy.

Thought for the Moment — Having the world’s best idea will do you no good unless you act on it. People who want milk shouldn’t sit on a stool in the middle of a field in hopes that a cow will back up to them. — writer Curtis Grant

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

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