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New funding mechanism should keep training on track

In the past several years, education proponents have struggled to maintain a decent funding level for the state’s workforce development training projects.

Thanks to legislation passed by Mississippi lawmakers this spring, a pot of $20 million was created to fund workforce training programs at the state’s 15 community colleges. “We usually have $11 or $12 million to spend in project money, and now we have $23 million to work with for the upcoming year,” said Dr. Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said the new funding mechanism was developed as an alternative source of funding for workforce training “rather than relying on the amount of money going up and down.”

“We wanted to do new and additional things to help our existing industry and to attract new industry to the state,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of the budget situation, legislators reduced the amount of general fund dollars that had been put into workforce training to a little over $3 million, so it wasn’t as much of an additional amount as we thought, but it is an additional and secure amount.”

On July 8, the 25-member State Workforce Investment Board (WIB) directed Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) CEO Tommye Dale Favre and CFO Mike Marsh to administer the workforce training fund and to process and advance community college requests for the use of the funds, said WIB chairman George Schloegel.

Stonecypher said the flurry of positive cash flow has led to much demand.

“We’re holding tight right now to see what we’re going to do,” he said. “We may wait until October to make some decisions. We’d like to do some projects long-term and get a consensus of folks involved to see what they think we ought to do. We’ve already started discussions with presidents to list priorities.”

The primary ideas floating around for budget discussion include earmarking money for programs to encourage and assist entrepreneurs, establishing a five-year program for nurses, creating advanced technical centers and career technical areas.

“Right now, we have a 1,500 to 2,000 nurse shortage, and each job represents a starting salary of $35,000 to $40,000 a year,” said Stonecypher. “Almost all of our colleges except East Mississippi (Community College) have an RN program. But there’s a waiting list of qualified applicants. For example, over 700 qualified applicants vied for 150 spots at Northeast Mississippi (Community College).”

Stonecypher said the proposed advanced technical centers would call for training in upper-end tool trades, similar to a program that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has with East Central Community College.

“What if we had an upper-end culinary arts program that would rival anything in New York or Paris?” he asked. “There are so many possibilities. We haven’t even talked about a career technical area. We haven’t had any new money there for a long time. We’ve opened some programs, but it’s been at the expense of other programs that have had to close for those to open.”

The exact amount of available money for workforce training has yet to be determined, said Stonecypher.

“Some in the pot will be match money, and we don’t know what we’ll have to pay (MDES) for collecting, which is a federal requirement,” he said. “That could be anywhere from $300,000 to $1.4 million. Plus we’ve raised salaries some to attract upper-end instructors. We anticipate spending $15 to $16 million in actual project money, which would leave us with $5 to $6 million for long-term needs. Those are reasons why we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

Before making their pitch, Moon and other WIB members will study innovative programs in other states that join workforce training needs and technology upgrades with “a real cooperative association between the private and public sectors to provide the training,” he said.

“The quality of our workforce is key, and the skill level will be even more critical as more technology is introduced into the workplace,” said Moon. “Technology increases productivity and makes companies more competitive. The only way for a new or existing company to feel secure in making a capital investment is to provide resources to help support them with training necessary to enhance the skill levels of new and existing employees using this new technology.”

Moon warned that workforce training dollars don’t operate alone. “Our goal has been to lower structural costs to do business, creating incentives to get them to think about adding new employees and technology and upgrading capabilities, and providing the workforce training support necessary to encourage them to make those investments,” he said. “One element by itself is not all that effective, but all three of them working together creates a very powerful multi-faceted package to help existing industry and recruit new industry.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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