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Training programs increasingly important for Mississippi workforce

Workforce training continues to grow in importance for Mississippi and leaders say programs are in good shape. A funding mechanism that diverts a percentage of unemployment monies into a trust fund for workforce training ended funding woes for these programs.

Tommye Dale Favre, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, says the establishment of the trust fund allows community colleges to plan from year to year. Thus far, over $18 million has gone to community colleges from the fund.

“As a result of that, the private sector is funding these programs,” she said. “Now, the community colleges don’t have to go to the Legislature every year to beg for allocations. They can plan, and it’s so important to be able to plan. Before, the funds didn’t carry over, and all of a sudden the funds came and they had to get it spent. Then the begging started all over again.”

The executive director of the statewide community college board says workforce training is critical for the state and gives people opportunities for a better life.

“We lost a great deal of manufacturing in the last 10 years. That was a loss for the pay involved and the economic base they helped create,” Wayne Stonecypher said. “We also have a 40% dropout rate, but those low-skilled jobs have left. Now, 65% of jobs require some skills beyond a high school education.”

He says all community colleges in the state are involved in workforce training and trained 192,000 people last year in different ways, touching 14% of the workforce. Stonecypher says that’s not enough.

“That number needs to increase, and that will help retain and increase industry,” he said. “We have a good funding mechanism that provides a good steady source of income. We have a little surplus on hand that should hold us for three to five years. That’s as far out as you look.”

Dr. Pete Walley works on long-range planning with the Institutions of Higher Learning and says it could always be argued that we do not have enough resources and funds.

“Adequate funds are very necessary for the operation and success of any effort,” he said. “A more important issue is whether our workforce system is both efficient and strategic in the use of its funds. Just as the worker is now being required to work smarter rather than physically harder, in my opinion, the state’s workforce system must begin to work smarter in the use of its resources and funds.”

There are no funding measures pertaining to workforce training before the Legislature this session. However, House Bill 2448 proposes to raise unemployment to $220 per week. Favre says her state agency recommended the increase after a similar bill failed to pass last year. For every $5 these unemployment payments are raised, the workforce training trust fund is impacted $8 million with the diversion stopping when the fund gets to $500 million.

The Mississippi Business Journal attempted to contact Rep. Harvey Moss, chairman of the House Labor Committee, and Sen. Terry Burton, who heads a similar committee in the Senate for comments on this bill. At press time, neither had returned the phone calls.

Walley feels public workforce training institutions have realized the importance of a stronger, more proactive workforce training effort.

“We’ve still got a ways to go, but we are on a good path with the state’s workforce development system,” he said. “Compared to other states, particularly those states with large numbers of low skilled workers, we have a relatively good system. But, that is not sufficient to help our workers compete in an increasingly competitive world.”

The biggest needs for additional trained workers, according to Favre, are for construction workers, skilled craftsmen, welders, pipe fitters and metal fabricators. “There’s a huge need for those along with nurses and careers that lead into nursing,” she said. “Industries are competing for these skills, and that’s where we count on community college to put the focus.”

The Department of Employment Security is working with the Governor’s Office and the Mississippi Development Authority for additional training in metal trades and construction — two fields complicated by the rebuilding on the Gulf Coast.

Walley says the training system is supply oriented. “That is, the system is very innovative and quick to develop new programs,” he said. “The problem is that the workers who need skills training are not demanding much from existing programs or new ones. Our workforce tends to not value skill enhancements or embrace lifelong learning.

“This culture or mindset of not valuing education did not start yesterday and will not be overturned tomorrow, but the greatest need in our workforce and education system is to begin a systematic, long-term effort to get our workers and citizens to demand education, skills enhancements and lifelong learning.”

Stonecypher points out that training can be customized and specific for an industry, or it can be career technical programs for credit. “A lot of training for companies is in leadership and management,” he said, “and we’re teaching a good number of basic skills classes. Workforce training will be the key to Mississippi moving forward.”

Favre says the State Workforce Investment Board that was created in 2004 is focusing on two new areas. One is to help the State Department of Education by supporting dropout prevention. “That’s the heart of the problem,” she said. “Less people work than we would like to see working and much of that has to do with dropouts.”

The second focus is to help re-integrate ex-offenders into the workforce to keep them out of the prison system.
Additionally, the board, under the committee chairmanship of Larry Otis of Tupelo, is piloting an accountability project. They have received the first reports that will help track where funds are being spent on workforce training, whether people get jobs, if their income goes up, and the type of training received.

The future of workforce training is going to shift to more technical means of delivery, Walley believes.

“Internet-based training and other technical means will place the burden on the individual worker to want and pursue specific training,” he said. “Future workers will have to continuously train and re-train for jobs.”

He cites a comment made at a recent technical meeting stating that U.S. citizens will see as much innovation and new products in the first 25 years of this century as did those citizens in all of the last century.

“A lot happened from 1900 to 2000, yet we are going to see some amazing inventions and ideas over the next 25 years,” he said. “How our workers respond to new workforce needs will determine whether Mississippians get their part of the economy associated with those ideas and innovations.”

Walley also notes that some researchers say the country will have to shift to more personal services, or people-oriented skills, as opposed to impersonal services that include manufacturing and technical jobs.

“That is not to say that Mississippi will only have service jobs or just a few high skilled manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Mississippi will always have some agriculture jobs, manufacturing jobs and even low or no-skill-required jobs. It is that the nature of the bulk of the new jobs is changing and our workforce system needs to be sensitive and responsive to the new workforce skills requirements.”

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

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