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Regional workforce initiative should help rural areas compete

A regional approach to economic development and workforce readiness is the answer for rural areas to compete in the global marketplace, according to several state and federal agencies. East Mississippi and West Alabama counties located near the state line entered an agreement, signed by both governors, to work together on an initiative. It’s named the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) initiative and is funded through a U.S. Department of Labor grant of $15 million.

The area — consisting of 19 counties in Mississippi and 17 in Alabama — is one of 13 regions in the country to qualify. Global competition is typically seen as a national challenge. However, organizers of WIRED say the front lines of the battlefield are regional, where companies, workers, researchers, entrepreneurs and governments come together to create a competitive advantage. Just kicked off in September, the WIRED initiative is in the process of getting organized in Mississippi.

“There’s a lot of work to be done to get ready. We’re in an intense organizing and focusing mode right now,” said Bill Crawford with the Mississippi Development Authority. “We’re asking: what best suits this region, what are the targeted clusters that fit this region? We’re working with communities and in cooperation with chambers of commerce and economic development groups to make them entrepreneur ready.”

Crawford was appointed to work with the Montgomery Institute in Meridian as grant director for WIRED and spends about 80% of his time working there. He says the project is designed to help regions make themselves more competitive. The initiative is also part of President Bush’s plan to increase the country’s readiness for global competition.

“It’s right on target, looking at having the clout and resources for rural areas to be competitive,” Crawford said. “It’s very hard for them to be competitive by themselves.”
In Mississippi four community colleges are participating — East Mississippi, East Central, Meridian and Jones County.

Each has a team working on the initiative and team members attended an orientation in September.

Danny Avery, a human resources consultant from Columbus, is working with the team at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). Others on the EMCC team are Dr. Rha Shaunak and Bruce Hanson.

“Civic leadership engagement is my part,” he said. “I’m passionate about workforce training. In consulting, my focus has been with leadership development and employee benefits.”

He is helping identify assets and to facilitate meshing the program at EMCC with what others are doing. “Although it’s early in the program, we plan to have a regional identity to help develop a global workforce,” he said.

The two-state region with 37 counties, more than 100 communities and more than one million population is large enough as a region to have a presence on the global scene.

“We’re working to identify commonalties and strengths, along with challenges,” Avery said. “We want a ready region with places that nurture and provide places of employment.”

Avery says an example of the challenges is the discrepancy in the region’s high school diplomas. All diplomas are not the same and graduates don’t have the same skills. Those working with WIRED are consulting with the State Department of Education for certification and uniformity among high school diplomas.

He feels the region is ready to seize the opportunities whey they come along. “People have a can-do attitude about regional workforce readiness,” he added.

The Montgomery Institute is the managing entity for the federal grant and is responsible for its implementation. Crawford outlines four goals for the program at this time while it’s still in the development stage.

“We’re getting staffs hired at community colleges and have all but two. We’re getting committees formed,” he said. “We’re getting the expertise on board and we’re determining what best suits the region.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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