By TED CARTER
Among the survivors of the bill-thinning that occurs at this stage of Mississippi’s legislative session is legislation to set up a $50 million workforce training program that can respond timely to worker training needs of companies looking to come to Mississippi or expand here.
Senate Bill 2457, along with the House version (HB 911) which has been rolled into the Senate bill, is a session priority of both Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi Economic Council. Mississippi can’t expect to compete with its Southern neighbors without beefing up workforce training and streamlining how the training is offered, Bryant and the statewide organization say.
The bill got a unanimous nod from the House Tuesday. Te Senate is expected to send it on to a conference committee, said Blake Wilson, CEO of the MEC, the state’s chamber of commerce.
SB 2457 diverts $25 million a year over the next two years from unused unemployment compensation fund money.
In announcing SB 2457 in January, Bryant said the unemployment compensation fund has built up the reserves as the jobless rate declined from 9.8 percent three years ago to today’s 7.2 percent. If unemployment should suddenly begin rising, the money would go back into the compensation fund.
As final work and votes on the workforce training bill near, the MEC’s Wilson wants to see a show of support from business people and other Mississippians.
“Workforce needs are #1…whether in manufacturing, technology, health care or hospitality,” Wilson said in an email blast late Wednesday.
With the new money and a streamlined worker training system, Mississippi can compete more evenly to get economic development deals done, he said.
Georgia has its “Quick Start” program and Louisiana “Fast Start” both of which have drawn Wilson’s envy.
“These are strong marketing terms that are used routinely,” he said. “With a $50 million pool we are going to compete effectively with those other states…. These are targeted dollars.”
Through its WIN Job Centers and 15 community and junior colleges, Mississippi does well at providing the training, Wilson noted. “But in the front-end commitment (to job training) we are a little clunky.”
The challenge, he said, is that when companies get ready to come to Mississippi S, we have to take extra steps. We have to go through a process. We don’t have a fund in place.”
Setting up a separate fund and a quick-response approach ensures that money and other resources used in current workforce training are not diverted, he explained.
“These dollars are to be different and for targeted uses.”
A complaint the MEC said it heard over and over again in a recent “Roundup” tour in two dozen Mississippi cities visited is that Mississippi slowness in responding to workforce training needs has been a deal killer.
Wilson blames “red tape” and says SB 2457 removes it.
The MEC has prepared a “Ribbon of Red Tape made up of complaints about the state’s inability to give prompt replies to worker training requests. Placed end to end, the complaints could more than match the 36-story height” that makes up the state’s tallest buildings, Wilson claimed.
Workforce readiness and obstacles to training will be front and center at the MEC’s legislative scrambler on economic competitiveness at 7:30 a.m. March 18 at the Mississippi Museum of Art. Sponsored by the TVA, the program is from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.
The scrambler will address SB 2457. Speakers are state Sen. Joey Fillingane, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and author of SB 2457; Rep. Jeff Smith, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and author of the House version of the workforce bill; and Rep. Donnie Bell, chair of the House Workforce Committee.
The money targeted for workforce training could be used for new businesses coming in or ones here that want to add workers. Decisions on use of the $50 million will be left to a nine-member Mississippi Department of Employment Security panel.
Wilson said the $50 million drawn from the unemployment fund over the next two years should be enough to pay for the quick-response effort “into the near future.”
At that point, he said, “we can assess how we did.”