Home » OPINION » Columns » ELIZABETH BARBER — Putting Mississippi to work in a restoration economy

ELIZABETH BARBER — Putting Mississippi to work in a restoration economy

These people are receivers of job skills training the Gulf Coast Restoration Corps offered for coast youth to help them learn how to collect baseline data for water quality sampling.  For more information, visit www.corpsnetwork.org/gulf-coast-restoration-corps

These people are receivers of job skills training the Gulf Coast Restoration Corps offered for coast youth to help them learn how to collect baseline data for water quality sampling. For more information, visit
www.corpsnetwork.org/gulf-coast-restoration-corps

Every region in the country has an economy that is tied to specific sectors, and the Mississippi Coast is no different. A “cluster,” in economics, is a geographic concentration of interconnected industries and businesses in a specific field. In December 2014, the Mississippi Business Journal published a study looking at Mississippi’s “blue economy”: the cluster formed by maritime industries – including shipbuilding, fishing, oceanography and marine technology – that employ 35 percent of the workforce in our three coastal counties.

There’s another cluster growing on the Mississippi Coast that is creating jobs and driving development: the restoration economy. The restoration economy isn’t made up of brand new sectors; instead, it brings together the industries, skills and expertise that our coastal communities have developed over generations and puts them to use repairing, rebuilding and restoring our coastal environment.

Right now, Mississippi has an unprecedented opportunity to restore the coast, bolster coastal industries, spur innovation and bring prosperity for Mississippi families and businesses. As funds come to the state through the RESTORE Act – which designates Clean Water Act fines paid by companies responsible for the 2010 oil spill back to the Gulf States – Mississippi can use them to invest in long-term restoration projects that will create jobs, strengthen industries and boost our economy.

Elizabeth Barber

Elizabeth Barber

Every $1 million invested in restoration creates between 17 and 36 jobs (Oxfam/The Nature Conservancy, 2012). For comparison’s sake, offshore oil and gas development creates approximately 9 jobs per $1 million investment. The numbers for Gulf Coast restoration are even better: a 2012 economic study found that the funds coming to the Gulf Coast as a result of the oil spill could create nearly 58,000 jobs in the next five years alone (Mather Economics LLC). For job creation, restoration is one of the best investments.

Further analysis by Oxfam America finds that restoration jobs in Mississippi often pay above median wages; they can provide pathways out of poverty in low-income communities. And they demand workers across skill levels – from veteran ship captains to first-time machinery mechanics.

Restoration offers hands-on training for new, young job-seekers who can be put to work rebuilding oyster reefs and restoring wetlands. But the restoration economy also provides new opportunities for workers who have been hit hardest by the oil spill and other damage to our coast. Recreational and commercial ship captains can command critical dredging operations. Fisherman can use the skills and equipment they already have to monitor and collect data on the fish, oyster and shrimp populations that sustain our state’s $700 million commercial and recreational fishing industries (National Marine Fisheries Service, 2012).

Our coastal restoration economy – and the opportunities it creates – has already started to get attention. For 30 years, the Corps Network (www.corpsnetwork.org) has been responding to disasters and meeting local needs while employing, training and providing service opportunities for young people and veterans in the communities they serve. They recently began a five-year project to employ over 700 Gulf Coast youth and veterans on ecological restoration projects across the region and establish local Conservation Corps in underserved communities. The Corps Network’s long history and extensive experience means that they invest in creating jobs that can change the lives of local residents while they repair communities. Their focus on our coast shows us that creating restoration jobs is a long-term investment in our workforce, communities and economy.

The Corps’ first restoration program in the Gulf is based in Gulfport, where it has partnered with Climb CDC, a local nonprofit workforce development program with a focus on at-risk populations. The first of several Corps Network pilot projects was completed in November of 2014 in cooperation with Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, The Nature Conservancy, Climb CDC and the Texas Youth Conservation Corps.

Restoration is about more than resilient coasts, clean water and thriving wildlife. It’s about putting Mississippians to work, helping struggling families and strengthening the industries that are the bedrock of our state’s economy. Our state’s legislators have already taken steps to ensure Mississippi workers get a first shot at restoration jobs by passing the Mississippi Jobs First bill in 2012. With RESTORE Act funds, we have the chance to address the damage from the oil spill and repair decades’ worth of environmental harm from human impacts and natural disasters and create thousands of good jobs in Mississippi.

Restoration is a win-win. It can put our damaged coast back together, put more Mississippians to work, support local businesses and promote new enterprise, and set our state on the path to a more prosperous future.

» Elizabeth Barber, vice president of Barber and Mann, Inc., is a certified wildlife biologist. She coordinates the MS Environment Focus Group, a grassroots coalition of 18 non-government conservation and community organizations working together in Mississippi for meaningful, science-based Gulf ecosystem restoration in order to achieve a vibrant environment and economy. Contact her at liz@barberandmann.com. 

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