U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is on a barnstorming tour of the country to drum up support for the No Child Left Behind Act.
February 14 was Mississippi’s turn, where she held a roundtable discussion with education and business leaders, including Gov. Haley Barbour and state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds.
Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power Co. and chairman of Momentum Mississippi, told Spellings that his company administers a test to employees who only have a high school education. The test, he said, is at the 9th- and 10th-grade level, yet only 30% of those who take it pass.
Topazi emphasized that the curriculum at Mississippi high schools is not providing students — the state’s future workforce — with a grasp of the basics of education.
“The rigor needs to be there,” Topazi said. “It’s a real problem and it provides for a lot of underemployment situations and that’s sad.”
BancorpSouth chairman and CEO Aubrey Patterson said his banks need employees who are proficient in math and science and who possess strong communication skills.
“They have to have a starting skill-set,” Patterson said. “Absent that, we cannot compete in a global economy.”
In a press conference after the discussion, Spellings acknowledged that the economic future of every state is directly tied to how well the public education system prepares students for the workplace.
“Education is critical (to creating a positive environment for economic development). We can no longer be competitive without it,” she said, adding that 95% of the fastest-growing industries are filled with jobs that require post-secondary education.
Barbour pointed to the programs offered by the state’s community colleges, from skills and career training to basic education and the efforts to secure a general equivalency diploma for adults who dropped out of high school, as just one important facet of an educational system whose product must be able to form a workforce that is attractive to business and industry. One success story for those programs is the Toyota plant being built near Tupelo.
“Education is the No. 1 economic development issue in every state, not just Mississippi,” said Barbour. “Every level of education is critical. Toyota said when they announced they were going to build a plant in North Mississippi that the quality of the workforce was the reason they chose to build here. They realized that the workforce in North Mississippi had been trained in sophisticated ways, and that workers could be trained to build their automobiles.
“The world is changing faster. There has to be training and re-training and re-training and re-training. You can’t be stagnant.”
David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, was heavily involved in the wooing of Toyota to North Mississippi.
He shares Barbour’s belief that Toyota officials were ultimately sold on the area because of its workforce.
“He’s absolutely correct,” Rumbarger said. “We have a number of Level 5 (superior achieving) school districts in the area, and they have all spent local money and done tremendous work revamping their curriculum to prepare their students for the workplace.
“That was key,” Rumbarger said. “On three or four occasions, we took them to schools. We took them to businesses to let them see the product.”
But it was a tour of Tupelo High School that impressed Toyota representatives the most.
“Karen Andrews, who does (human resources) for Toyota said, ‘David, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve done a lot of these (school tours), and I have never in my life seen the engagement between teacher and student that I’ve seen here,’” Rumbarger said.
“After that she determined that the plant would be in Mississippi. I wish everybody could have that experience.”
Initial dirt work began on the plant last year. Significant structural portions have now been completed. Operation is scheduled to begin in late 2009.
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .