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MEP.ms making impact on local manufacturers

The Manufacturing Extension Partnership of Mississippi (MEP.ms) is actively working to provide support services to member education institutions and local manufacturers, particularly small to medium-sized producers.

The public-private partnership offers a contact point for services ranging from an introduction to ISO/QS 9000 certification to meeting facilitation. It even can help manufacturers obtain workforce training at little or no cost to the company, while at the same time allowing the school that offered the training to gain extra funding that does not come from the state coffer.

Spreading the word

With eight years under its belt, MEP.ms’ partners are now looking to get the word out that these services are available, and that utilizing these services can be a huge benefit to manufacturers that either don`t know where to turn for training needs, or can`t afford the required services.

“There are 62 MEP centers in the U.S., and ours is set up differently than most,” said Tony Jeff, executive director of MEP.ms. “Other centers have staff in-house, and the center itself provides the services. MEP.ms is a virtual organization. We support our partners, and we want them to be the contact with the local manufacturers.

Whether these manufacturers are aware that these services were coordinated through MEP.ms or not is immaterial. We just want to ensure that the manufacturers know that the services are available. And we don`t want to compete with our educational partners.”

MEP.ms was formed as a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership center. Originally a pilot project of the University of Southern Mississippi`s (USM`s) Mississippi Polymer Institute, in 1997 it was expanded for the statewide Mississippi Technology Extension Partnership.

In 1999, the original and 1997 agreements were combined and put under the aegis of USM. Then, following a request by USM and NIST, administrative responsibility was shifted to the non-profit Mississippi Technology Alliance, which still oversees the center, in 2002.

Guidance and policy direction is provided by a 33-person advisory board, made up of representatives from manufacturers, economic development organizations, public utilities, government, educational institutions and MEP partners. These partners include the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), Mississippi State University, USM, Itawamba Community College, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Holmes Community College and Hinds Community College.

Straight forward, simple approach

MEP.ms follows a simple service model. An initial assessment is conducted with the client-manufacturer and an initial proposal is drafted. The proposal is then reviewed with the client, when sources of funding are identified and assembled, and the services needed are identified and priced. The proposal is then given to the manufacturer to choose among available services and pay any fees not covered by outside funding.

According to MEP.ms, it has made a significant contribution to local manufacturers over its history. An independent survey by Synovate Corporation found that MEP.ms’ bottom-line impact (sum of cost savings of unnecessary investments and savings) on its clients last year was in excess of $12.7 million. And the investment impact (new investment in plant and equipment, information systems and software, workforce skills and practices and other areas) was more than $11.5 million.

It`s a “win-win-win” situation, according to Jeff. The company gets training at reduced or no cost. The training institution gets extra dollars. And, because it`s federal money, Mississippi taxpayers aren`t footing the bill.

The partners are also looking to take advantage of MEP.ms. One of these is Hinds Community College (HCC) in Raymond, which recently hired Terry Baum as industrial training specialist and charged him with devoting 100% of his time to MEP.ms promotion in the community college`s district in Central Mississippi. Among the community college participants, HCC is the only one to bring someone on board exclusively to promote MEP.ms-coordinated support.

Baum, recently retired from Mississippi Chemical Corporation, said HCC president Clyde Muse and director of training John Woods should be credited for their forward-looking vision to concentrate on the advantages HCC`s MEP.ms affiliation can offer. And it`s especially important today with Mississippi`s budgetary constraints.

“It`s is critical today that colleges operate more as a business,” said Baum, a native of Ohio. “With this additional one-third reimbursement, colleges can bring in funds to reinvest. There is great potential here for development.”

Unfortunately, that federal funding was recently slashed – falling from $190 million to $39 million. Jeff said MEP.ms is concerned, and is hopeful that funding will be restored. MEP.ms and MMA representatives recently made a trip to Washington, D.C., and Sen. Thad Cochran`s office to plead their case. Jeff said Cochran and other lawmakers were supportive, as well.

“In the scope of the federal budget, $70 million is nothing, and I think that`s why the funding was slashed,” Jeff said. “But $70 million can mean a lot to a small manufacturer.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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