Mississippians are fat, stupid and doomed to low-wage, menial careers, according to a Ball State University report.
However, officials at the Mississippi Economic Council scoff at the findings, leading MEC president Blake Wilson to say, “I’m glad (they are) very safe behind (their) internet research perch.”
Michael Hicks, director of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research, which conducted the study, told the Mississippi Business Journal that 4 out of 10 Mississippians are not going to be able to compete for jobs in the new manufacturing world, which depends greatly on mathematical skills and education.
“We’re in trouble. We are in big trouble,” admitted former Mississippi university and high school administrator Reggie Barnes.
The Ball State report graded all 50 states in several areas of the economy that support manufacturing and logistics. Mississippi ranked low in education, obesity and overall health, among other categories.
“Mississippi is a nice place,” Hicks said. “But the only jobs most people are going to get are shucking oysters and sweeping floors.”
Mississippi received an overall score of C+ for manufacturing and good grades in diversification and tax climate. However, failing grades in human capital and venture capital give Mississippi a dim economic future to look toward.
“Obviously, he has never been to Mississippi,” Wilson said. “That’s just a ridiculous statement. Anybody that knows anything about Mississippi knows we’ve got all kinds of high-tech employment.
“He’s probably looking at older data when he’s looking at that conclusion,” Wilson said. “And this is why we don’t take this kind of study very seriously. I mean it’s legitimate research. It’s just that it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
But when asked about the MEC response, Hicks chuckled and said, “So, let me guess, the MEC is wanting to tell you that Mississippi is a great place and I am some Yankee that doesn’t know what he is talking about?
“To say that poor education is not holding back Mississippi from an economic perspective is to suggest your head is in the sand or a darker orifice,” he said.
One Mississippi expert acknowledges the downside of the report, and says this should be a wake up call to Mississippi leaders to make a change.
“An F on human capital? Ouch,” exclaims Mississippi College assistant professor of finance Nancy Anderson, who is also on the board of the Mississippi Council on Economic Education.
Anderson, however, noted that most southern states are similarly graded.
“Our lower grades are ‘fixable,’ with some effort,” Anderson said. “This seems to be a call for more investment in education, more funding for university research. The venture capital hurdle can even be cleared, with some help from the public sector.”
Mississippi officials — Including Jay Moon at the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and director of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Hank Bounds — were not available to the Mississippi Business Journal for an interview regarding this story.
“Some states, such as Indiana, have seen a real turnaround in manufacturing employment since the end of the recession (up 4.6 percent), while the nation as a whole has seen one in 50 manufacturing jobs lost,” Hicks says.
“Prior to the recession, business location and expansion decisions were almost wholly driven by the availability of skilled workers,” he says. “Today, that is far less a short term consideration, and tax rates, and concern about future tax increases due to high pension costs and other factors dominate business decisions to relocate. So, states that emerge from this recession with a solid fiscal climate will tend to outperform those with uncertain balance sheets.”
That is good news for Mississippi in the short term.
“Haley Barbour will be glad to hear that,” Hicks said. “Mississippi will likely benefit for the near term because of its friendly tax laws and diversity of manufacturing. In the current recovery, states with good tax climates are going to do well.”
But in Mississippi, the real problem of education and healthcare “has not gone away,” Hicks said.
While Mississippi may be gaining cutting-edge manufacturing from the solar and green energy sector, there are few actual Mississippians who can take advantage of the new jobs. Therefore, the new jobs will likely go to people moving from other states, having little positive effect on the double-digit unemployment here.
Even if Mississippi gets all of the high-tech jobs on the plant, Mississippians, for the most part, aren’t going to be the people working there, Hicks explains. (Mississippians) are good people, but they lack the education to work in a real-world economy.
The other side is that because of the poor education and general health of the state (the fattest state in America), Hicks says the best applicants likely will never consider moving to Mississippi.
“That’s the problem,” Hicks says of the long-term economic future of Mississippi. And the positives from the tax climate and diversification don’t come close to making up for the downsides.
“(Mississippi) is just not going to get (the new and best) major manufacturing plants,” Hicks said. “(Mississippians without a proper education) are out of the mix.”
The problem is with 8th grade math scores. Mississippi is far behind the rest of the nation and that is an area manufacturing is concentrating on.
In a cover story in Atlantic Magazine, education was front and center. Nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan.
In Mississippi, math scores are much worse, and students here — by this measure at least — might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia. Every year, a better education for our youth is listed as our top need, like in this Ball State report. To this point, Mississippi just cut spending at every level of education from kindergarten to graduate school.
Barnes said this is at the heart of the problem of education and industry and economy.
“When are we going to learn or wake up to the direct correlation between education and economic development?” Barnes asked. “We just keep our heads in the sand.”
School superintendents with experience are not willing to make a change at the local level for fear of losing their jobs and their retirement, because of the pressure put on them from above, he said. As for younger superintendents, he says they are unwilling to rock the boat for fear of having their future yanked out from under them.
“You must have these skills,” Hicks said. “Computer skills and a higher lever of math is what everyone is looking for.”
And Mississippi workers do not and will not have these skills, based on scores Ball State examined for its study.
“When are we going to make those changes?” Barnes asked. “I wish I could tell you someone, somewhere has the guts to stand up and change things, but I don’t see it.”
And then he said there is no debating that without an overhaul, Mississippi will continue to be compared to Thailand, where the large-scale sex industry flourishes and education is on the back burner.