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Choctaws, East Central Community College join forces

New training center a ‘baited hook’ for industry

One of the state’s largest private employers, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, has combined forces with East Central Community College (ECCC) to open the Integrated Technologies Training Center (ITTC) at the Mississippi Choctaw Advanced TechParc located on 150 acres of land 35 miles from Meridian.

The training center is designed to provide workers with training to prepare them for high-tech, high-wage employment.

“The college’s training center being located in the middle of the technology park is a baited hook for recruiting,” said Roger Whitlock, director of workforce development at ECCC. “The Choctaws have attracted a couple of industries to the Advanced TechParc because there was the ability onsite to select and develop productive workers. The college and tribe have done a good thing in terms of luring jobs and employers to the area. If the specific workforce is not available, then we can help access, select and develop it.”

John Hendrix, director of economic development for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, said the ITTC is a vital element in attracting more high-tech industries to the park.

“We had the facilities, high-speed infrastructure and land,” Hendrix said. “What we needed was the workforce development piece providing customized job training for any tenant in the park. If the training center doesn’t have the skill sets to teach what is needed, the training staff will customize the curriculum to meet the needs of this company.”

The ITTC officially opened in mid- March, and Hendrix didn’t have to wait long for confirmation of the importance of the training facility. He recently met with representatives from two prospective industries, one from Israel and another from California, and found they were keenly interested in the new training center equipped with the latest tech- training equipment.

“We spent half of our time talking about workforce development,” Hendrix said. “It literally is the missing piece. They spent most of their time in the training center learning how they could train employees. If there was any doubt of the importance of the training facility, now I’m a believer because I just saw it.”

The park, known as the Choctaw Industrial Park when it opened in 1971, initially had a number of industries including a greeting card company and automotive wiring plant. Employment declined as those industries moved offshore. The Choctaw Tribe kept some of the businesses, and now operates companies in Mexico.

The complex was expanded and re-branded as the Choctaw TechParc (www.choctawtechparc.com) in 2005, and has been filled in with high-tech companies in the areas such as information technology, aerospace and geo-technology. The movement into high-tech businesses dovetails with the efforts of the Choctaws to improve education for members of the tribe to provide them with better employment opportunities. Ten years ago, the Tribe had only 10 members with college experience. A college scholarship program was launched, and today Choctaw college enrollment averages 400 students per semester.

One of the reasons given by Kia for deciding to locate a new automotive facility in Georgia instead of Mississippi recently was concerns about the availability of an adequate workforce. That underscores the importance of advanced skills training in today’s manufacturing environment.
While the center is located on the reservation and the primary focus is training for jobs brought to the reservation in the TechParc, the college can also help any local or regional employer with advanced technical training needs.

“We can host training for other non-tribal businesses, as well,” Whitlock said. “This relationship is designed to skill up the regional area workforce. This location gives us a chance to support employers in doing that.”

Many manufacturing jobs in the region have been lost in recent years as jobs have moved offshore. Whitlock said the skill sets of people previously employed in manufacturing might not be a perfect match to what is needed by high-tech companies.

“We now have the facility, trainers and equipment necessary to help transition workers from previous industries into the new jobs that are available,” Whitlock said. “We can convert those workers from the skills and knowledge they had to the skills and knowledge that they need. We have listened to the voices of employers, and they have advised us about a common set of technologies we will be implementing.”

The training focuses on technology applications in an automated environment for manufacturing. Typically, trainees receive 24 hours of instruction for a project specific goal. Training covers such areas as programming, operating, troubleshooting or maintaining equipment. Training began at the center in March in hydraulics, pneumatics and robotics.

While the initial training is in foundation skills, Whitlock said the training will go as high-tech and high skilled as is needed by local industries.

The overall workforce training provided by ECCC reaches a large number of people. In the past fiscal year, more than 17,000 people were trained in everything from basic GED courses all the way to advanced robotics training.

“Typically our attitude is to listen to the business community about their needs, and respond with the best solution,” Whitlock said. “We give it our best college try when we hear the needs. We will customize whatever is needed.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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