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Funding has been a contributing factor in several industries

Barbour steps up for workforce training

While the pace has slowed due to the national recession, the proliferation of large economic developments in Mississippi the last five years has been brisk.

The arrival of the Nissan plant spun a web of suppliers and peripheral businesses in Canton, as did Severstal in Columbus, General Electric in Batesville and Toyota in Blue Springs.

At the ceremonies announcing those projects, officials from the state and each of the companies were quick to credit the region’s workforce as a reason the site was selected.

One of the tools the state uses to train and develop skilled workers could be in danger of losing its funding.

The workforce training and development programs at Mississippi community colleges are funded through the Workforce Enhancement Training Fund. The WET Fund gets its money from unemployment insurance taxes paid by state employers. Annually, more than $20 million, or one-third of the fund, is diverted to pay for workforce programs at community colleges. State money makes up a third of workforce training funds, with federal money making up the rest. If the WET Fund gets below a certain level, that $20 million is no longer diverted. That scenario is possible with the state’s unemployment rate rising.

In his State of the State in January, Barbour told lawmakers that money should be replaced with general fund revenue if needed. He cited statistics that showed workers who received job training from a community college saw their annual salary increase an average of $4,000. Barbour, in his speech, called the programs “key to our economic growth.”

In a press conference last week announcing the expansion of Alliant Techsystems Inc. in Iuka, Barbour criticized the workforce training portions of the economic stimulus package the U.S. House passed. The bill would require states to issue unemployment benefits to people who indicate they are unwilling to accept a full-time job. Mississippi law currently mandates that people drawing unemployment benefits be willing to work full-time eventually. Barbour pointed to that as one reason, if and when it is passed, Mississippi might be better off not accepting proceeds from the stimulus package.

“ The state government programs in the House-Democratic package expire at the end of 2010, so I will be very careful to look at whether we’re going to take a year and a half’s worth of money and then have to change public policy to suit (U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi for the rest of our lives,” Barbour told a group of reporters.

With the possibility a large portion of their funding could dry up, workforce-training officials at community colleges are looking for ways to make up the difference. Four community colleges in Northeast Mississippi are taking a regionalist approach to providing workforce training for companies who seek it.

“(A) company doesn’t care where they get (workforce training) as long as they get it,” said Nadara Cole, vice president of the division of workforce training development at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville. Northeast, Itawamba Community College, Northwest Mississippi Community College and East Mississippi Community College have formed a consortium that allows them to share resources, instructors and equipment.

The schools want to ensure that at least one of them has an expert in each of the subject matters in which companies want their workforce to be proficient.

Those subject matters are a rapidly moving target. The technology businesses and industries use advances at a rate that requires constant innovation.

“What we did 15 years ago is totally different than what we’re doing now. Now the employers are asking us for more and more advanced skills,” Cole said.

Keeping the programs that teach those skills afloat requires stable revenue, something state agencies have learned is not a guarantee for this budget year or the next few going forward.

“The WET Fund drying up would hurt us,” Cole said. “We realize these are lean times, but we’re hoping that will not happen, that we will have stabilized funding somehow. Without (workforce training) I don’t think we could attract new businesses or expanding industry.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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