Workforce conference explores new ideas about education

JACKSON — Gov. Haley Barbour said yesterday he wants Mississippians to look at new approaches to improve education, including more opportunities for job training instead of bachelor’s degrees and the involvement of churches to help prevent struggling students from dropping out of high school.

Other ideas include cutting tax funds to intercollegiate athletics, shortening paths to college degrees and pushing schools to spend reserves to cut state budget demands.

The suggestions came in the second in a series of three farewell speeches that Barbour is giving at the end of his eight years in office. At the Governor’s Workforce Conference, Barbour urged listeners to look for solutions beyond increasing funding to government. Much of the conference was devoted to reviewing changes that Barbour has made to worker training during his eight years

“We thought this would be a great time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished,” said Les Range, executive director of the Department of Employment Security.

Barbour, though, said it’s not time to rest.

“I have tried very hard to improve state and federal support for workforce training because I think it’s very important,” the Republican said. “I’m proud of the progress, but we’ve got a lot to do.”

He said that it was important to “de-stigmatize” job training as a choice for graduating high school students.

“University is not for everybody,” Barbour said. “Our economy needs more workers with high skills than we need people with university degrees.”

Barbour said there was a danger that Mississippi won’t produce enough qualified workers to remain attractive to employers.

“If we don’t get everybody involved, we’re not going to have enough workers to continue our growth,” he said.

The state is trying to expand dual enrollment, the practice of allowing high school students to enroll in college and earn credit both toward a high school diploma and a college degree. Though he said all students need a good K-12 academic foundation, Barbour said the state is asking for a federal waiver to allow short-term job training programs to count toward high school credit.

Barbour broadened his focus beyond worker training. Repeating a call he made Wednesday in Tupelo, he called on the state to cut births to unwed mothers in half within five years. He said he met with a group of ministers Thursday, urging them to organize a program where congregants seek out nonmembers to help parents and encourage students to complete high school.

“Let’s get our churches more involved in education,” said Barbour, adding that he hoped a pilot program would start this summer. “I suggest to you that the vast majority of failing students are first being failed at home.”

Continuing to predict “a constrained fiscal time,” he called on schools and colleges at all levels to reduce spending by combining administrative operations. He called for a reduction of state tax dollars going toward intercollegiate athletic teams at community colleges or universities, with the goal of eliminating such funding.

“Fans, alumni and students need to pay for athletics, not taxpayers,” Barbour said.

And he said K-12 districts, community colleges and universities should spend down their own reserve funds to reduce state budget pressure. He also asked universities to develop alternatives to a four-year degree, cutting costs to students and time in school.

“A four-year degree is unnecessary to certify to employers that a student is ready to work,” Barbour said. “There’s got to be a lower-cost alternative in our future.”

One alternative to a bachelor’s degree would be other kinds of credentials that an employer would recognize.

Range said Mississippi would like to invest more in credentialing, but it’s expensive. The state has already rolled out a workforce readiness certificate provided by testing agency ACT, but Range said credentials need to get more support from employers.

“We’re hoping businesses will see the value,” he said.

Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, called on the state to widen opportunities for nationally recognized training certificates. She said that a survey by her group shows 600,000 factory jobs are unfilled because manufacturers now need higher-skilled workers to compete worldwide.

“This has added a creativity and critical-thinking aspect to manufacturing jobs,” said DeRocco, who leads the group associated with the National Association of Manufacturers. “Not surprisingly, about this time, manufacturers began reporting what they called a skills gap.”

She also urged companies to start demanding that new workers have these credentials, saying such demand will induce schools to offer them and students to enroll. She said a pool of credentialed workers would be an advantage for states seeking new industry.

“No manufacturer is going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars unless they can be confident that the workforce is going to be there.”

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