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As I See It

Montgomery County getting it together

Several weeks ago, I took a road trip from Jackson up to Winona for a summit meeting on education and economic development in Montgomery County. The theme of the summit is the vital link between education and economic development.
I am excited by the proactive stance the community is taking to improve the quality of life in their area.

Panel members included representatives from business, education and the community at large. It was discouraging, in a way, to hear business leaders talk about the deficiency of “soft skills” they encounter in hiring workers.

Dependability, poor social skills, appearance and carelessness in filling-out employment applications were specific problem areas. On the other hand, it was encouraging to hear these problems openly discussed with the education and community leaders.

The most discouraging thing I heard came from Randy Watkins at Anel Industries. Anel uses a sixth grade level pre-employment test for all new hires. Not only were the test scores low but, even worse, there wasn’t a lot of spread between college graduates and high school dropouts. If ever we needed proof that something is wrong with our education system, Anel’s testing experience gave it. And, it should be noted, Winona is a Level IV school district and, further, they came within a hair’s breath of being Level V (the highest ranking in the state).

So, what are they going to do about the problems raised at the summit? Fact is these problems are not unique to Montgomery County; they are rampant throughout the state. However, contrary to popular belief, they are not new problems. In the past, workers performed routine jobs out of the spotlight and their educational deficiencies were less visible. Now, technology has eliminated lots of menial jobs and everyone’s work is more closely scrutinized.

Back to the question of what is to be done, Montgomery County has prepared a five-year strategic plan for their community. And, unlike most strategic plans, this one is being used. In thumbing through the plan strategies, it’s encouraging to see so many of the action steps marked “in process.” I suspect that “staying on message” has been the result of both community enthusiasm and the energetic leadership of Dr. Jack Russell, a facilitator from southern Virginia who was involved in developing the plan and continues to push its implementation.

All of this ties together when one understands the relationship between education and business. Better education increases worker productivity and increased productivity is the key to business success. Thus, one arrow in the quiver to fling at NAFTA is increased productivity, which lowers costs and makes retaining jobs in America more attractive.

How do we improve the education process to make graduates more productive in their careers? Several concrete suggestions were made at the summit:

1. Increased mentoring — using both adult and older students — to impress on younger kids the importance of staying in school and taking their studies seriously.

2. Educators need to accept that the curriculum required for the students to pass mandated tests is the minimum and not the maximum. Kids simply must learn soft skills and basic tools for surviving in the work world in addition to the proscribed curriculum. After school and weekend work may be required to get everything done.

3. Different educational tracts for the non-college bound student. More vocational opportunities to learn practical, work-world skills to get the student ready to enter the workforce upon graduation from high school or community college.

4. Demonstrating to teachers the skills required in the work place by conducting workshops on site during the summer months.

Those suggestions seem to be heading in the right direction. If our society, beginning with our youngsters, could get excited about learning, Mississippi would be a different and better place. As Mr. Sammie McCaskill, head of the Montgomery County Schools, said, “We want the kids to run to school and just walk home.” With enthusiasm and leadership like that, they just might make it happen. The two students who addressed the summit, Amber Armstrong and Cody Washington, clearly exemplified the attitude, appearance and communication skills that would make any employer flock to hire them. If we can develop more young people like these this community, and our state, will prosper.

I would like to thank Sue Stidham with the Economic Development Partnership of Montgomery County for inviting me to the summit. Likewise, thanks to Jo and Bill Ellard for having the conference at their picturesque cattle ranch.

Finally, hats off to the Mississippi Department of Transportation for keeping Interstate 55 clean and mowed — the drive from Jackson to Winona was a delight.

Thought for the Moment — You get the best out of others when you give the best of yourself. — Harvey Firestone (1868-1938),
founder of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

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

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