Training Dick and Jane

December 16, 2011

Education

The Governor’s Workforce Conference held earlier this month in Jackson offered plenty of success stories, particularly the recruitment of the new Toyota plant in Northeast Mississippi.

However, there were also words of warning about the state meeting the needs of businesses with a competently trained workforce in the future. The state is already struggling to meet the demand for skilled workers, and it is facing a severe shortage of available trained workers in the short term.

Arguably the biggest current challenge is training funds, especially the budget of the state’s community and junior colleges, the system that is the cornerstone of the state’s workforce training strategy.

The State Workforce Investment Board, created in 2004 with the Mississippi Comprehensive Workforce Training and Education Act, has adopted six broad goals. One is to “fully leverage the community college workforce training system.”

The SWIB, which is composed primarily of business leaders, said in a statement: “By 2014, it is expected that Mississippi will need approximately 200,000 more workers. However, population projections indicate a growth of only 100,000 workers. This shortage must be addressed by looking inside Mississippi.”

At the same time, Mississippi’s junior and community colleges are being asked to do much with little. Since the recession began, the Mississippi Board of Community Colleges (MBCC) has seen enrollment grow some 23 percent while dwindling state tax collections have forced budget cuts.

Dr. Eric Clark, executive director of the MBCC, said lawmakers have acknowledged that the two-year school system is underfunded, yet the system has managed to make ends meet.

“We are the victims of our own success,” Clark said flatly.

In the workforce training arena, the community/junior college system has two main offerings — customized, on-site skills training and in-classroom career readiness programs.

The skills training is funded through the Workforce Enhancement Training Fund (WET Fund). Funding peaked recently at $23 million, and is now down to approximately $15 million. However, Clark said this has been sufficient to meet businesses’ demand.

It is the funding for the in-classroom career readiness programs that have been affected by the decreasing state budget.

Late last month, Clark said he hopes lawmakers will make good on a promise for mid-level funding for the state’s two-year institutions made back in 2007. That year, lawmakers pledged to fund the two-year school system midway between the state’s per-student allocation for public school and that spent on students at the public universities of Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, Delta State and Mississippi University for Women.

According to Clark, the public school allocation is $4,600 and the public university allocation is $6,600. Thus, the community colleges should currently be receiving $5,600 per student from the state. However, they are currently receiving only slightly more than $3,000 per student.

Clark provided statistics that show more than half (52 percent) of students go to a community college, yet the system only receives 27 percent of its funding from the state compared to the funds awarded to the state’s public universities.

According to MBCC’s 2010 annual report, community and junior colleges in Mississippi offered degrees and certificates in 126 different career and technical program areas at their various campuses, comprehensive centers, and extension centers throughout the state.

In FY 2010 all 10 requests for new programs were received from six institutions were approved. The Board also approved all five requests for new program options received from three colleges, and one request for a new program location was approved.

However, seven programs were closed by institutional request due to low enrollment and funding concerns.

In the fall of 2009, 21,467 students were enrolled in career and technical programs at community and junior colleges, up more than 2,000 students when compared to the fall of 2008.

Asked again what his hopes were for mid-level funding gaining traction the next legislative session, Clark told the Mississippi Business Journal he just wants to see progress toward the mid-level funding goal. He said he does not expect to see the goal met over the next several years.

The Bureau of Long Range Economic Development Planning at the State Institutions of Higher (IHL) has released a report summing up the state’s economic position in the future. It found workforce training, too, to be the key.

“Remaining globally competitive…will require Mississippi to make some changes that will fundamentally affect its quality of life and the quality of its workforce,” the report stated. “Attracting higher wage, high-tech jobs will mean that Mississippians will have to be better trained, that cutting-edge technology will have to be readily available here, and that the quality of life stacks up well against other states and nations around the world. Technological advances in communications and plummeting transportation costs have greatly minimized the importance of geographic location.

“So Mississippi now needs to cultivate the one factor of production that is not easily moved – a quality, trainable workforce.

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