As I See It

by Joe D. Jones

Published: May 26,2003

raymond — In a May 19th press conference at Hinds Community College, Republican candidate Haley Barbour put workforce training on the political agenda that is shaping this year’s governor’s race.

Addressing the media, business leaders and supporters gathered at the Eagle Ridge Conference Center, Barbour outlined a few of the changes that he thinks Mississippi needs to make to its training infrastructure. The key component involves integrating federal and state efforts to maximize the investments we’re making in workforce training — an issue that is near and dear to me, personally, and one that is vital to a robust economy and prosperous communities.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I saw the importance of strong training programs in my work with an automotive supplier with several manufacturing facilities in Central Mississippi. Now, as a member of the State Workforce Development Council, I’m involved in insuring that new and existing businesses can find skilled Mississippians to meet their personnel needs.

Workforce training programs help employers be more competitive and keep jobs in Mississippi. They also help workers upgrade skills and earn more money to support their families. Workforce training is both an economic development issue and a quality of life issue.

And education, including workforce training, is the most important issue facing Mississippians today.

Our state has lost manufacturing jobs by the tens of thousands in recent years. Many of these jobs were low-wage and low-skill, and they left the state to be filled by cheaper labor somewhere else in the world. They are not likely to come back.

So, for these displaced workers to have a chance at employment, their skill level must be upgraded. Unfortunately, under the present system the efficiency of workforce training in the state is a fair target.

Piecemeal efforts to deliver training have led to a number of overlapping and uncoordinated programs administered by different agencies. The result? Unnecessary frustration for the businesses that need help in meeting their employees’ needs

The current system of state-supported workforce education came into existence with passage of the Workforce Education Act of 1994. That act created a local workforce council at each of the state’s 15 community colleges. Members of the local councils represent area employers and are charged with advising the colleges about training needs within the district. One member from each district council is asked to serve on the State Workforce Development Council.

Over the past few years, the Legislature has funded the state workforce training program with about $12 million each year. Employers make their training needs known, and the community colleges facilitate in meeting those needs. Though the budget is modest, this system works very well and has been used as a model by other states.

However, not all state workforce training dollars are dispensed through the community colleges. At least six state agencies get some amount of funding to provide workforce training. Though these agencies have the best of intentions, the fragmentation, by definition, leads to absence of a coordinated effort.

Onto this already crowded playing field came the federal government to establish a new entity to provide worker training with the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It created a workforce investment board in each state to oversee the dispensing of federal training dollars.

There are differences between the operation of the state and federal workforce training programs. The state dollars are targeted to help employers train groups of workers for jobs. On the other hand, the federal dollars are targeted toward the individual. Though that difference might seem small, in practical application it is a wide gulf.

The difficulty in complying with federal regulations can be easily understood by anyone who has ever prepared their own tax return.

During the past year there has been an attempt to coordinate the two workforce boards. Members have made an effort to find areas where cooperation could improve effectiveness.

Very capable men who, I believe, have the state’s interest at heart lead these boards: Gulfport banker George Schloegel chairs the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIN), and the State Workforce Development Council is led by industrialist George Walker of Clarksdale.

And though change always moves slowly, progress has been made to coordinate efforts and produce a more effective workforce training result for Mississippi.

Haley Barbour’s proposal to integrate these boards and unify the workforce training initiatives and resources in our state is an idea worth considering. Mississippi is in dire need of better training for our workforce in order to compete for the high-tech jobs of the global economy.

Whether his campaign for governor is successful or not, Barbour’s proposal places workforce training on the political agenda. The increased awareness that will result from debating how training can be more effectively delivered is a win for workforce education in our state.

Thought for the Moment — When any of you sin in that you have heard a public command to testify and — though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter — does not speak up, you are subject to punishment. — Leviticus 5:1

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

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