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As I See It

‘Teach it and they will come’ more likely to work

Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. These days, everyone is talking about “high-tech, high-paying jobs for Mississippians.”

The Legislature must be in session.

With the Nissan plant in Madison County humming along, other communities in the state are in hot pursuit of their own automotive assembly plants — and the thousands of new jobs that come along with them. The lure of such a tempting target is all but irresistible for many a politician or gung-ho developer.

And certainly, bringing in jobs is important to our state’s economy. After all, we offer industrial parks with all the amenities anybody could want. Interstate access, rail lines, electricity, gas and tax incentives.

But now folks up in Northeast Mississippi want taxpayers to put up money for the Wellspring project to buy a speculative site where, they believe, once they see it, automobile manufacturers will find the location irresistible for a new plant. And, well they might. Who knows?

Too little attention is being paid to the underlying fallacy of this “build it and they will come” approach to economic and industrial development. We need to start talking about what is really going on, and I’m going to do that here.

A dirty little secret

Though the southeastern U.S. is the ideal location for automotive manufacturing plants and several are likely to be built over the next few years, Mississippi will have a hard time supplying a trained, or trainable, workforce to handle those demanding jobs.

That’s it. There it is, folks. Our deep, dark secret is out in the open now. Borrowing from Ross Perot, Mississippi’s low-skill workforce is “the crazy aunt in the basement.” We can try to ignore it, but at our own peril.

Every year, some 15,000 high school students in our state drop out. That’s FIFTEEN THOUSAND KIDS! Most of these young adults don’t, and won’t, have the capability to handle automotive manufacturing jobs, or any other jobs that require high skills. They’re going to be around for a long time, but they are not likely to contribute much to our economy. Add to that dismal statistic the fact that 30% of Mississippi’s adult population is functionally illiterate.

Without overly discounting the importance of building more industrial parks, Mississippi would be wise indeed to spend whatever it takes to get our uneducated masses up to at least the lowest rungs on the literacy ladder. Government can’t do it alone, but spending money to provide Mississippians with the skills they need to compete in a global economy makes sense.

The problem, as I understand it, is rooted in challenging socioeconomic circumstances many face. Lower income families are more likely to lack resources — like time and money — to help their kids achieve. The importance of education is often overlooked, and too many parents don’t push their kids to excel in school. The parents are likely uneducated themselves and have been wards of the state for their entire lives and don’t understand that there’s a better way for their kids.

Fixing the system

Our public education system is broken and in bad need of repair. We’re spending too much money and effort testing bright little Johnny to be sure he’s properly prepared for Ole Miss or Vanderbilt, while others are stumbling under the load and dropping by the wayside. Middle- and upper-income folks don’t usually cross paths with the uneducated and thus are unaware that they even exist, much less what needs to be done to make education attractive to all children.

One thing is certain. If we don’t do something different, we’ll keep digging the hole deeper and deeper. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not my fault or your fault that kids are dropping out of school. But, we should be concerned because these kids will be lifelong underachievers and be a drag on the economy. They will be weak links in the chain and, rather than being contributors to the economy, they’ll be dependents.

Supporting what works

The state has a myriad of programs offering adult basic education and workforce training. These programs need to be funded and expanded. The brilliant diversion of $20 million of excess unemployment trust funds into workforce training is one of the best things our state government has done in awhile.
On the nonprofit side, Junior Achievement provides financial education in the schools, while the Mississippi Council for Economic Education trains our teachers to better teach economics in our schools.

I have been active in both of these organizations, and I now serve as president of JA’s board. I can personally attest that these two groups of professionals and dedicated volunteers are deeply engaged in workforce training and are deserving of our financial support.

Beyond providing the opportunity for education at state expense, the students must want to learn. My mother, and your mother too, probably, always said you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. People must value learning and the benefits that it can provide. Somehow that message isn’t getting out. We’ve got to find out why so many youngsters are dropping out of school and put a stop to it.

Mentoring and more

In addition to funding training and overhauling the education system to be more meaningful to all kids, we need to mentor disadvantaged folks to get the message out that education is the ticket to ride. Former Gov. William Winter was indeed correct when he said that the road out of poverty leads by the schoolhouse.

Before we commit the state’s financial resources to building more and better industrial parks, we need to retool our workforce. If we could have the momentum and creativity toward improving education that the Coast has enjoyed in planning its rebuilding efforts, we could truly make our state a better place for all our citizens. And, I promise you that if we were to be successful in upgrading our workforce, we’d have so many manufacturing plants knocking at our door you couldn’t stir ‘em with a stick.

Thought for the Moment

Do more than you are paid for. There are never any traffic jams on the extra mile. — motivational speaker
and writer Brian Tracy

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

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