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Manufacturers need wide array of workforce training programs

Manufacturers in Mississippi have a wide array of workforce training needs, needs that vary not only from industry to industry, but also from one area of the state to another. And, groups such as the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA) and the state’s community and junior colleges are customizing their training offerings to help meet the gamut of needs.

Skills are crucial to the state’s manufacturers, which are competing on an ever-widening playing field. It takes people to land new manufacturers and keep existing entities running, a departure from the way it used to be.

“We no longer want to chase smokestacks — we want smokestacks to chase us,” says Scott Alsobrooks, workforce education director at Pearl River Community College (PRCC). “We need skilled workers. It’s a supply chain management problem. Really, we’re chasing human capital”

James Williams, vice president of economic and community services at Itawamba Community College (ICC), agrees.

“I’ve been at this for a long time,” Williams says. “It used to be that a prospect came in and wanted to know about land, water, sewer, etc., and somewhere down the list was workforce. Now, it’s at the top of the list. They want to know about the workforce first before making a decision.”

Regional differences

While there are universal needs amongst Mississippi manufacturers, there are also specific needs that vary from one part of the state to the other. ICC is situated in Northeast Mississippi where manufacturing employs one in three workers, and Williams says that makes for a unique environment.

“The culture is different up here,” he says. “People know about manufacturing.”

He adds that ICC is focused on three main areas — educational attainment (getting GEDs, obtaining financial aid and tuition assistance, etc.), technicians for modern manufacturing and, surprisingly, healthcare issues.

“Healthcare is huge,” Williams says. “Manufacturers want to know that there is healthcare available for their workers.”

In the Delta, which has a large population of unemployed/underemployed, low-skill people, training falls more into the basic skills category, says Perry Jenkins, dean of workforce education at Mississippi Delta Community College (MDCC).

“This a predominantly agriculture area,” Jenkins says. “People need education in workplace attitude and expectations.”

Jenkins says MDCC offers a significant amount of training in basic job skills — showing up every day and on time, following instructions, etc. Basic arithmetic is also offered alongside training in robotics and laser welding.

On the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina completely changed the region’s dynamics. Alsobrooks says PRCC has changed its offerings accordingly.

Wanted: (Hi-tech) welders

Across the board, welding was the most in-demand training offered by the community colleges. Some companies are going to great lengths to recruit welders.

“We have a member in South Mississippi, Laurel Machinery and Foundry, who is running ads on a billboard saying they are hiring welders, and they still can’t find enough,” says John Baas, director of industrial relations at the MMA. “Every welder in the world can work if they want to.”

And, welding has gone high-tech. While traditional welding such as stick and MIG still is in demand, PRCC is offering aluminum and pipe welding, specifically to meet the needs of PSL North America, a pipe manufacturer in Pearlington.

Much of this training is geared toward working smarter instead of harder, Baas says. He is a former garment manufacturer, who has watched his former peers go overseas or find new careers as jobs flow to international markets and cheaper labor.

“We have to teach these skills if we are going to keep manufacturing jobs in Mississippi,” he says. “It’s all about lifelong learning.”

Baas says he sees some positives in manufacturing in Mississippi. Some manufacturing that went overseas is returning because of quality issues. He also is high on the Workforce Tax Credit, which offers $2,500 per employee per year.

“A lot of people are unaware of it, but those who are really enjoy the tax credit,” he says.

MMA continues to offer its members a significant amount of training. It has long offered training workshops and seminars across the state, but is now offering them onsite at members’ locations, customizing the programs to meet the company’s individual needs.

And, environmental education is also gaining traction. MMA offered its conference focused on safety and human resources last month. In June, it will offer another, this one focused on the environment.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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