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Adequate, trained workforce linchpin for development

As I See It

Summer has reached its zenith, and it’s downhill from here. Soon, school bells will be ringing and the lads and lasses will be off to another year of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Economic development is always in the air and there’s no shortage of projects on the drawing boards around the state.
Education and economic development all in one paragraph? Absolutely. The two are inseparable though not nearly enough attention is given to the economic development importance of education.

During my lifetime, I have witnessed the state assuming more and more responsibility for providing jobs for the citizenry. In years gone by, the state’s function was to supply some level of order to society and provide services that weren’t, or couldn’t, be provided by the private sector. Now, politicians run campaigns where promises of attracting new jobs are the centerpiece of the spiel.

Students of economic development know that providing suitable location and infrastructure is the key to attracting new jobs. For industrial-
type prospects, transportation, utilities and an industrial park are all part of the mix. Increasingly, government gimmes, i.e., tax incentives, are integral to success. We provide physical and financial incentives, boast of our central location and mild climate and hope the jobs will come.

There’s something very important missing in this scenario. It’s the people! If we can’t supply an adequate workforce to enable the new company to successfully do what they do, then all the infrastructure, location and tax incentives will not bring success.

What constitutes an adequate workforce? Pretty simple, really. Employers need workers who are sufficiently educated to enable them to be trained to do the work. They also need workers with soft skills and a good work ethic. Getting along with management and other workers, the ability to take constructive criticism without anger and the commitment to come to work every day and stay the whole day are indicative of good soft skills.

How do we fare in producing an adequate workforce? As with many subjects, some good along with some bad. Established workers who come from families with solid work histories do very well. These folks appreciate a good job and strive to do their best work, are loyal and productive. They see themselves as part of the system and believe they have an opportunity to grow within that system. And, when you get a good Mississippi worker, they’re the best there is.

However, there is a large underclass in our state that does not fit well in the work environment. There seems to be an endless cycle of ignorance and poverty that pervades the state and propagates itself generation after generation. This group is outside mainstream society and, because they’re not on the economic playing field, continue to languish at the bottom. Most unfortunately, this group does not see anyway to break out of the economic doldrums and get up in the game. Since they view themselves as doomed, education and training is not valued because there’s apparently no way out of their predicament.

Actually, education and training can work wonders for folks who have never played the game. In fact, it can get them in the game and on a team. What is so desperately needed is to convince them that the cycle of ignorance and poverty can be broken and good jobs can be had if only they will prepare their minds to participate. I’m sorry to say I see no evidence that we’re making much progress in this undertaking.

In many cases, parents don’t encourage their youngsters to excel in school, or even attend school beyond the mandatory age of 16. It’s not seen as “cool” to be a good student. Thus, kids drop out of school by the droves with very little prospect of finding a good job and, all too often, end up in prison.

If our economic development efforts are to be successful for the whole state, this attitude toward education has got to change. Otherwise, a few major companies will come in and hire the best workers and we’ll be left with the state supporting those who are not employable. Not a pretty picture, but reality nonetheless.

What can we do? Our education system needs a massive overhaul. That means challenging the framework upon which the system is built and, unfortunately, the system has an entrenched bureaucracy defending the status quo. We expect that all good students will go to college or they’ll be considered unsuccessful notwithstanding the fact that only 20% of all jobs require a college degree. Half the kids that start college in Mississippi fail to complete a degree and, as college dropouts, they also have limited work skills.

We should be emphasizing learning work skills rather than overemphasizing a bachelor’s degree. Beginning in the early years, young people need to start identifying themselves as part of the future workforce and not just preparing themselves for some undefined role as a college graduate. This is a job that will require a change in parental attitudes. We need to correlate learning with earning a living.

For those who have a family history of nonparticipation in the workforce beyond the menial level, we need to take every opportunity to encourage them to develop their potential to become productive citizens. The negativism that destroys these young people’s chances for a good future in the workforce is entrenched and is going to require government support to cause a change. We’ve got to make learning “cool” or adolescent peer pressure to drop out will prevail.

Promoting economic development without adequate attention being paid to developing the workforce is shortsighted and doomed to failure. We all need to get on the education bandwagon and look for every opportunity to promote training to both young people and to those already in the workforce. Truly, all the industrial buildings and rail lines we can build will not make up for an inadequate workforce.

Thought for the Moment— A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
— Writer and historian Henry Adams (1838-1918)

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

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