AMORY – Economic incentives and available industrial sites are important components when it comes to attracting industry, but economic developers, cities and counties don’t have as firm of a ground to stand on without a solid workforce. Continued partnerships between the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce and the county’s school districts are yielding progress to plant early interest and harbor equitable skills for the workforce of tomorrow.

With the help of Atmos Energy, Three Rivers Planning and Development District, the Mississippi Development Authority Ambassador Program and the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, every high school senior at Aberdeen, Amory, Hamilton, Hatley and Smithville will take the WorkKeys test at no charge this spring. Nettleton High School seniors are provided the same privilege through the CREATE Foundation’s Toyota Wellspring Education Fund.

“It’s something similar to what the (Golden Triangle) LINK did through boosters,” said Monroe County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Chelsea Baulch. “We received a grant through the MDA Ambassador Program for chamber members completing the program. They said they wanted to spend it on this. How great is it when volunteers and your core chamber team are getting the core concepts?”

Itawamba Community College is working with local schools in the effort, and counselors have volunteered to proctor the WorkKeys tests.

Several students and county residents are not familiar with operations of local industries like True Temper, ITT, Tronox and Kemira. Most people are unaware of the products manufactured.

“Growing up, I drove by Tronox every day and always thought there was one roof. Jimmy Autrey at Westlake said people think there’s a large monster behind those gates, but it’s a chemical process with a series of pipes. I think people think there are robotic assembly lines like a car manufacturer,” Baulch said.

Baulch has been impressed by touring local industries and wants to pass the opportunity along to educators.

Amory Career and Technical Center Director David Millender suggested using a professional development day for Baulch’s goal of having teachers tour Monroe County industries, and the gears are already in motion with some schools.

“They play such important roles, so they understand. After seeing advanced technology, whether it’s a first-grader or an eighth-grader, if they have a niche, they can encourage them in that direction,” Baulch said, adding she’d like all of the kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers to ultimately take local industry tours.

The Tupelo-based CREATE Foundation hosts the Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo, which exposes eighth-graders throughout Northeast Mississippi to some of the region’s industries and the career pathways available to them. In addition to taking a group of local elected officials, Baulch hopes to have 100 percent participation by Monroe County industry in this October’s expo.

“We’ve been brainstorming on having a localized summit to have industry leaders bring knowledge about the industries we have in the county to expose students,” Baulch said. “We’re going to continue to collaborate. If you’re in a career and technical field in Monroe County, you learn skills in high school. If you apply at NauticStar, and they see you can do x, x and x, you have a better chance of getting hired. We’re going to expand that to the chemical cluster and all the other industries.”

She added NauticStar plans to supply boat materials for career and technical students to learn how to assemble boats.

“Once we start testing seniors, that’s not enough. How do we get juniors and sophomores tested? I want to make a standard. What’s our standard and how do we raise it? It starts with all of us – the parents, grandparents, Sunday school teachers, the person who checks you out at Walgreen’s. We’re all in this together,” Baulch said

By Ray Van Dusen / Monroe Journal