As I See It

by

Published: February 3,2003

Mississippi lags the nation in our commitment to lifelong learning. We are dead last. Our society views education as a process that is largely completed by age 24. From that point on we spend our non-working time watching TV, playing golf and fishing. The thought of learning a new skill or improving an old one never crosses our minds. And we suffer for having that attitude.

We call people who seem to be interested in everything “renaissance men or women” and view them as oddities. Out of step with our commitment to leisure. You know the ones I’m talking about. They’re the ones who seem to value knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Perhaps they read a lot, or learn a foreign language just for the fun of it. They make us uncomfortable.

Well, it’s probably not important that we all turn into renaissance people. However, it would be better if we changed our view toward learning new stuff. The world seems to be spinning faster and faster as everything changes before we get accustomed to the last change. The skills required for our jobs mutate at a dizzying pace. Everything we do seems to involve a computer now. The choice of maintaining our work skills is ours to make. However, if we choose not to stay on top of things our careers will suffer.

Most of our readers are highly educated and realize the importance of keeping their professional skills updated. The vast majority of Mississippians are not in that group. They developed adequate skills to gain employment and their training pretty much ended right there. Without the support and encouragement of employers they would be in a bad fix.

If we can’t all be renaissance people at least we should stay on top of new technology impacting our jobs. To support that objective, Mississippi has a good system of workforce training. It’s a partnership between the community colleges and the employers. Through this system, workers get the job training they need and the state benefits because the training encourages employers to stay here rather than relocating elsewhere. The state funds this program by utilizing community college resources and providing about $13 million for direct training costs.

We are all aware of the significant announcement of Nissan choosing Mississippi for a major plant location. We have heard of the financial incentive packages that the state used to lure them here. A cursory analysis would imply that financial incentives and commitments to industrial infrastructure are the keys to economic development.

It just ain’t so. Here is a very important point. Economic development is mostly about education and only minimally about providing roads and sewers. If Mississippi had a trained workforce, we couldn’t keep new jobs away with a stick.

But, alas it isn’t that way at all. We struggle to keep the jobs we have and are largely struggling in vain. Mississippi is losing manufacturing jobs like blood out of a cut artery. Replacing these jobs is going to be tough, tough, tough. We are losing jobs because our workers have only minimal skills and workers with minimal skills in other countries will do the jobs much cheaper. Thus we won’t be successful at recruiting new minimal skill jobs since there is a mass migration of those jobs to countries with lower wage rates.

What to do? Mississippi cannot afford to back away from our commitment to educate our citizens. Not just K-12, but our adult workforce as well. We are so far behind that we can’t possibly spend too much on education.

However, we have another problem that can’t be solved with merely pouring money into training programs. Our people don’t value education. We need to create demand for knowledge by educating our people about the value of learning. State Sen. Robert Clark introduced a bill in the Legislature last year to establish an education marketing board whose function would be to create demand for education and training. I thought he had an excellent idea and I still do. Unfortunately, the bill died last year. However, the new legislative session is underway and perhaps it could be enacted this year.

Training. Learning. Updating skills. You never get too old to learn something new. All of our lives would be enhanced if we just committed to learn new things all the time. Perhaps in so doing we would influence the less well educated and start a learning renaissance in Mississippi. I’m skeptical, but hopeful.

Thought for the Moment — Be humble or you’ll stumble.

— evangelist Dwight Moody (1837-1899)

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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