The statistics from the Mississippi Employment Security Commission (MESC) are sobering: seven out of the 10 fastest growing job categories demand education beyond high school. But 83% of Mississippians do not have a college degree, and one in four adults doesn`t even have a high school diploma or GED.
“Our workforce is not adequately training for the jobs that are in the highest demand today and in the future,” said Jan Garrick, spokesperson for the MESC. “Everyone feels they deserve a good job. But the jobs people will be able to get will nowhere meet their expectations if they don`t get an education.”
According to a report by MESC, the top 10 jobs that will grow most rapidly are in the healthcare and computer fields. There are two things driving the jobs demand, Garrick said. The aging baby boom population is driving the healthcare jobs. The other is the fact Mississippi is finally catching up as far as computer-related jobs.
“Before we had so many low-end manufacturing jobs, and now there are more jobs that are computer related,” Garrick said.
What is being done to train people for the types of jobs that are expected to be in the greatest demand? Dr. Wayne Stonecypher, executive director, State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said the junior colleges provide a wide range of training in the areas of computers and healthcare.
“We have always tried to pride ourselves on meeting the local needs of citizens,” Stonecypher said. “Wherever the jobs are, you will see a fairly representative sample of community college programs to meet those needs – especially in computers and the health care area.”
A large number of nurses are trained at the community colleges, but it doesn`t stop there. There are many different types of healthcare certifications available. One example is a cardiovascular technician program at Northwest Mississippi Community College, which trains people to work in cardiovascular surgery. Another example is sonography\ultrasound, an imaging technique being used increasingly in place of x-rays.
“This is going to be the real future of a lot of diagnostic procedures,” Stonecypher said. “It is a good paying job. There is good demand for it.”
Sparking students’ interest
Having training programs available for jobs that are in demand is only one part of the picture. You also have to get students interested in learning the skills.
“Creating demand for education is one of the most important things we need to do in the state,” Stonecypher said. “Education, jobs training and skills application should be right up there in priority with the first football game of the season or the senior prom. But we don`t have that across the state where education is the top priority. We have to let parents and students realize that the low-skill jobs are gone except in microscopic numbers. For our citizens to get ahead, they are going to need to get education beyond high school. They need the educational background to fit into the jobs that are available.”
In 2000 only 15% of jobs in the U.S. could be filled by unskilled labor. About 65% required some technical training, and 20% of jobs required a four-year college degree or higher. Stonecypher said those numbers show that the real future of jobs in America and in Mississippi is going to be in the skilled technical areas.
“I wouldn`t discourage people from going to a university and getting four-year degree,” he said. “But there are a lot of opportunities you can acquire through a two-year degree. Students need to be advised about the options that are truly available to them. We have to get parents, counselors, students and grandparents to really put education as a number one priority in their lives and the lives of the children they influence.”
Pete Walley, director of long range planning for the Institutions of Higher Learning, believes young people are not getting very good signals about the importance of workforce education.
“It is almost like we are depending on the kids to be interested enough to go out there and figure out what they want to do,” Walley said. “It is almost happenstance unless there is some guidance given in the development phase of a kid trying to figure out his vocation in life. We have to work harder on counseling. I don`t think counselors are really counseling in high school anymore. They are doing more record keeping and bureaucratic functions as opposed to having a relationship with kids and trying to give them information and direction on how they find out about career opportunities.”
Where do the drop-outs go?
Walley thinks it is significant that in all the discussions he has been involved with in recent years about workforce training and the importance of career choices for kids, never once have counselors as individuals or as a group participated in any of the discussions.
“I have never been to a single meeting where counselors stood up and made their thoughts known,” he said. “It is clear a lot of kids are not getting parental support, and counselors are trying to fill in social gaps. In reality, from a career standpoint they need to give students enough signals that they will begin to think about career opportunities.”
A big proponent of the state doing a better job selling education to state residents, Walley said about the only signal sent consistently in Mississippi is, “Go to college.” But 10,000 to 15,000 youth drop out of high school each year. Of the 25,000 annual high school graduates, about two-thirds go on to some type of college. But less than half of those end up with some type of degree.
Those numbers add up over a 12-year school cycle. Over that period, about 300,000 youth – representing a fourth of the workforce – have a lack of skills and career choices that could not only launch them into a good paying career, but help improve Mississippi`s economic standing.
“That directly relates to the capacity of our workforce to improve itself,” Walley said. “You have a fourth of the workforce acting like a big sea anchor holding us back. No matter how hard the other group is pulling, they can`t pull that group with them.”
“If we are going to move Mississippi ahead, what is it going to take? We have plenty of roads, good infrastructure and agency programs, and yet we can`t move ahead. What is holding us back? You have to improve the cultural mindset that education and skills don`t matter. We have to do something special to overcome that. The first major hurdle is to get the leadership to recognize something special is needed. We can develop special programs to encourage the citizenry to understand the importance of higher levels of education, skill attainment and lifelong learning.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.