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Paul Harvey

BILL CRAWFORD: Good policies without adequate funding won’t close skills gap

BILL CRAWFORD

Years before Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, conservatives would regularly tune in to hear Paul Harvey on the radio. Admired for his unique voice and storytelling talent, Harvey broadcast his conservative messages for over three decades. He was particularly known for revealing to his audiences “the rest of the story.”

During the remainder of this year’s national political season and next year’s state election cycle, voters would do well to adopt Harvey’s approach. Don’t let politicians get away with only telling part of the story. Get the rest of the story too.

An example of this emerged at last week’s Summit on Career Education and High-Paying Jobs, held at Itawamba Community College’s Belden Center in Tupelo.

Listen and you will hear state politicians touting Mississippi’s “lowest ever” unemployment rate and recent job growth.

At the summit, Lewis Whitfield, Senior Vice President of the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, played Paul Harvey and told approximately 300 business leaders, educators, economic developers, and elected officials the rest of the story.

“Only 56% of civilians are working or looking for work,” he said, as reported in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “So 44% either aren’t working or not looking for work. So when you hear we have a 4% unemployment rate, that’s great – but it only applies to that 56%.”

As for job growth Whitfield said, “While the U.S. economy has grown 16.8% from 2009 to 2017, Mississippi has grown only 3.4%. The fundamental reason for our lack of growth is the lack of a qualified workforce.”

The underlying issue for both labor participation and job growth is workers lacking needed skills. This fact was highlighted at the summit by Ron Wanek, founder and chairman of Ashley Furniture Industries, the world’s largest furniture manufacturer and retailer that employs 3,200 people at its facilities in Ecru, Ripley and Verona, and Hassell Franklin, founder and CEO of Franklin Corp., a motion furniture plant that employs 1,000 people in Chickasaw County.

So, politicians, what are y’all doing to get our lowest-in-the-nation labor participation rate and skill levels up?

Not nothing, but clearly not enough.

State policies addressing the issue are pretty good.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s State Workforce Investment Board designed its comprehensive Mississippi Works Smart Start Career Pathway Model to address these problems. It covers the spectrum from basic skills for high school dropouts to high-tech skills for advanced manufacturing. It involves all kinds of partners, including community colleges, schools, rehabilitation centers, and WIN Job Centers.

Bryant’s Third Grade Reading Gate and the Mississippi Department of Education push to reduce high school drop-out rates and improve graduation rates have had some success. And Bryant led a revamp of the state’s Early Childhood State Plan.

But state funding to implement these policies is inadequate.

Partner agencies budgets keep getting cut by the Legislature. There’s not enough money to hire the number of third grade reading coaches needed or retain the effective teachers needed for drop-out prevention in many schools.  And there is virtually no state money to address critical early childhood development needs.

“Closing the skills gap is our biggest challenge,” said David Rumbarger, CEO of Tupelo’s Community Development Foundation.

Policies without adequate funding won’t close the gap, and that’s the real rest of the story.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicate columnist from Meridian.

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