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Plan for redesigning education needs our support

Education is in bad need of an overhaul in Mississippi. The high school dropout rate is atrocious and well publicized. For every 100 kids starting school this year, only half will graduate from high school. What kind of future does a high school dropout have to look forward to? They’re very likely to be stuck with menial work, when menial work is available, and unlikely to ever contribute much to our economy. They will be takers rather than givers.

Enough has been written about the plight of the uneducated and the dismal future they have in store. Now, from a business standpoint, what about the impact on our economy resulting from a shortage of trained workers? What will happen when we simply cannot supply workers capable of performing the jobs of tomorrow?

A recent article in the September 2006 issue of Industry Week magazine is right on point. In a story titled “Labor Days: Meeting Our Workforce Challenges!” by Jonathan Katz and John S. McClenahen, the authors say that the most significant challenge confronting U.S. manufacturers is that future workers may not be up to the job.

Remember all the hand wringing we’ve all been doing about losing manufacturing jobs? We had capable labor to do the jobs but lost out to cheaper labor offshore. Now it appears that our next challenge will be losing more jobs, not because of cheaper labor elsewhere, but rather from the inability of our workforce to do the higher tech job. We need to wake up and get control of the situation before it’s too late.

The authors of the Industry Week article point out that, even after the losses of manufacturing jobs resulting from offshoring, mergers and downsizing, more than 14 million Americans remain in the U.S. manufacturing workforce. Of those, nearly 10.2 million are in production jobs. Can these workers be retrained to work production jobs in the fields of biotechnology and nanotechnology as well as the ever-advancing complexities of the aerospace, auto, steel and textile industries? Can new, younger workers be enticed to enter the manufacturing arena and will they be qualified to handle these higher-tech jobs? Much of America’s economic future rides on the answers to these questions.

Making education more relevant

Fortunately for Mississippi, we have a new state superintendent of education who understands the problem and is pushing an innovative program to help improve our situation. Dr. Hank Bounds has a new program called “Redesigning Education for the 21st Century Workforce in Mississippi.”

The program allows students as early as the ninth grade to choose between academic and vocational pathways. These tracts are designed to meet the requirements of industry, community college or a four-year college. In short, Dr. Bounds is committed to preparing students for a career working at good jobs that are now available and have good future prospects here in Mississippi.

Making school more relevant to students will knock a serious dent in our dropout rate. Plus, we’ll be preparing more students with good industrial skills to enter the workforce, which will go a long way toward attracting new and better jobs to Mississippi.

Dr. Bounds is going to need our help. I predict that the entrenched education bureaucracy is going to fight this initiative tooth and nail just because it represents a change and change is a bureaucrat’s worse nightmare. However, the system now in place is not working, and continuing to pursue failed policies in hopes of a better outcome is lunacy.

Considering supply and demand

While we’re looking at education there is another aspect that deserves our attention. Every endeavor must consider both supply and demand for the product because both are essential ingredients to the success of any organization. To date, all of our efforts and tax dollars have been expended on improving and expanding the supply side of education.

New school buildings, more and higher paid teachers and new curriculum all have to do with the supply of education services. No attention has been paid to creating demand for education and that is where we’re falling short.

Our Celtic genes renders Mississippian’s more interested in watching football games and deer hunting than in lifelong learning. We simply must overcome this cultural inertia or we can’t fully participate in the opportunities our free economy lays at our door. Somehow, we’ve got to plant the seed in our young people that education is important and provides the key to economic success. Dr. Bounds’ initiative is a giant step in the right direction.

Thought for the Moment

Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.
— musician Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)

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

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