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Manufacturers’ dilemma: finding workers with high-tech skill sets

Workforce training is important for all sectors of the state’s economy, but it’s the most important factor for the growth of Mississippi’s manufacturers.

“We’re not keeping up. We have a lot of needs and issues regarding workforce training,” says Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA). “The dropout rate is a big issue and the environment of having no skills for technology-based manufacturing. We’ve got to cure it and keep kids in school.”

He points out that the dropout rate is a problem nationwide, and that two-thirds of the training being done by the private sector is remedial.

“It is taking a lot of thinking across the country to fill the void as the first wave of Baby Boomers is starting to retire,” he said. “(Superintendent of Education) Dr. Hank Bounds’ re-design of the secondary education program in Mississippi is very good with students beginning to take classes in high school in their possible career fields.”

Finding the people

The Boomers are the largest and arguably the most skilled generation the country has ever had. Generations X and Y don’t have such large numbers or range of skills at a time when the economy is growing and more jobs are being created in manufacturing and other sectors.

“Where will the people come from?” Moon wonders.

One possibility is to train workers in basic skills, rather than training for a specific company, so they can go to work anywhere. Those basics may include electronics, hydraulics and engineering, followed by training for a specific machine to fit a company’s needs. Moon and other manufacturing leaders envision this basic training done on a nationally-recognized level, based on national standards that are acknowledged everywhere.

“The companies will know the value of people’s skills,” he said. “There are a number of groups working on it, and we’re not that far away from it. Every meeting we go to we discuss it, and we know it has to be market driven and market recognized.”

Workforce training for manufacturing must also keep pace with the technological changes occurring. Moon says that means schools can no longer set up training programs and have them run for 10 years.

“There are a lot of changes, and we’ve got to be ready to train and re-train. It’s a fundamental issue for us at this time in the state,” he said. “If we don’t do it right, we won’t be able to attract new companies and keep up.”

Currently, training through the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) is designed to meet the specific needs of companies and some of the basic skills Moon sees for the future. That training includes, but is not limited to, management skills, leadership, team building, maintenance, robotics, lean manufacturing, metal trades, electronics, capacity building and performance excellence, medical training and computer skills.

Adaptability

“High-tech jobs require varying levels of skills. Therefore, training has to be adapted to meet the needs of each level of the sector it supports,” said Kathryn Stokes of MDES’ Office of Public Information and Policy Development. “Courses would be developed to meet the skills in these high demand-driven career areas of healthcare, information technology and manufacturing skills.”

MDES is working with a long list of partners to meet workforce training needs. Beginning with local elected officials and local workforce investment boards and including the Department of Education, Department of Human Services, Department of Rehabilitation Services, Mississippi Development Authority, State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Department of Labor.

“The Workforce Investment Network (WIN) in Mississippi is administered by MDES and represents a collaborative effort with private business, local and state elected officials and local and state public agencies,” Stokes said. “The collaboration ensures that the needs of local businesses and job seekers are met in the community through tailored solutions designed to promote workforce development and economic growth.”

Future skill sets

The training is changing as technology advances, and technical support services must be developed to meet training needs. MDES sees future training requiring more training in computers, robotics and lean manufacturing skills.

Moon says the state now has funding for workforce training that augers well for the future. A funding mechanism that diverts a percentage of unemployment monies into a trust fund for workforce training ended funding woes for these programs. Thus far, more than $18 million has gone to community colleges from the fund.

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.”

The 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 doesn’t think that’s 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.”

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

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