I was very fortunate that my parents recognized the importance of education and drilled it into my head throughout my childhood years. That emphasis on education, plus insistence that every job was important and deserved my best efforts, formed the foundation of my work ethic.
In my mind, I can still hear my father saying, “If you’re going to be a ditch digger, be a good one.” And, “There’s plenty of room at the top of the ladder but it’s crowded at the bottom.” Many of us have similar childhood recollections.
An early realization
I knew pretty early in life that farming and hard manual labor was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Education was the ticket out of that environment in those days and it still is today. So emphatic were my parents about education that I never considered not finishing high school and going on to college. It was a given.
When I became a parent, I passed on that commitment to education to my kids. And, I’m proud to say both of my children have college degrees. It was just assumed in our family that education included college and the alternative was never discussed.
And, that was my attitude for much of my adult life. If anyone is going to pick themselves up and be happy and financially independent, they simply had to go to school and get a degree. It was a pretty selfish attitude, but I was comfortable with it. It never occurred to me that the state had an interest in the education of its citizens.
It was not until Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College, enlisted me several years ago to serve on the workforce training council that I began to understand that education is a bigger issue that just personal advancement. You see, in addition to the individual opportunities that training offers, it matters to Mississippi whether a person gets educated or not.
Why should the state care whether I get myself educated and qualify for a better job? Just as Wal-Mart has an inventory of merchandise to sell, Mississippi has an inventory of trained workers who can handle the better, higher-paying jobs and move our state up the economic ladder. Again, as with Wal-Mart, the bigger and better the quality of our workforce inventory, the more and better customers we can attract.
Making tools effective
There’s a lot made of the importance of industrial parks and they are important. People get excited when they think of carving out a piece of land and filling it with buildings, sewer, power, rail, roads and workers. True enough, prospective employers want, and need, adequate buildings, utilities and transportation. Pretty, well-maintained industrial parks are a thing of pride for the community, and they should be.
However, having a modern industrial park location without an adequate workforce is equivalent to having a fancy British-made rifle with no ammunition. You can show it off, but you can’t shoot anything with it. It’s only with ammunition that the rifle becomes an effective tool.
To make our human resource tools effective we need to constantly invest in training, and then some more training. In my judgment, improving the educational level of our workforce is the single most important thing that the state can do to help get us off the bottom of the economic pile.
Just think about it for a minute. If economic development is defined as increasing the average per capita income for the state, then folks have to make more money to have real economic development. How can people make more money? I suppose they can work longer hours but improving their skills is a better idea. By improving skills, the value of their work is enhanced and commands higher pay. It’s really very simple.
What should we do? From a macro standpoint, support education and workforce-training initiatives. Every time a worker’s skills are enhanced, the state takes a baby step up the economic ladder. Our community college system if one of the best in the country and they deliver the goods for our workers.
Further, we need to do whatever we can to encourage kids to stay in school. There is simply no place in our increasingly complex world for uneducated workers. So, on a micro level, all of us can do more to encourage kids to stay in school. Mentoring opportunities abound. Be active in the local schools and testify to the kids about the importance of finishing their education.
In areas of the state where available, volunteer with Junior Achievement to teach in the classroom. Let the kids know that our American economic system is a good one and they can be a participant, and a winner, in that system. But, they can’t do it without adequate education. Junior Achievement helps plant the seed that choices have consequences and that is a very empowering message for youngsters.
Regular readers of this column probably think that an education bug has bitten me and they are correct. For me, education has made the difference between having a rewarding, interesting middle-income career and driving a John Deere tractor over some hot, dusty cotton field for a living. To say that I am committed to education is an understatement.
Thought for the Moment
When you add to truth, you subtract from it. — The Talmud
Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.