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A closer look: How will state respond to telecom study?

Armed with findings of a new study, economic developers and telecommunications employers banded together last month to focus on the future of the fastest growing industry in Mississippi.

“The Jackson metro area has a window of opportunity to build a globally-competitive telecommunications industry cluster that can prosper on its own merits over the long term, but work must begin immediately,” said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (MDECD)

Last month, MDECD unveiled a study at a Telecommunications Industry Forum that revealed potential problems and solutions within the industry.

Approximately 7,000 telecommunications employees represent about two dozen companies that are based in Jackson. Three major players have more than 1,000 employees and several other companies are nearing the 1,000-employee threshold, said Dennis White of the Compass Group, a Silicon Valley-based business consulting company hired to conduct the study.

“The metro Jackson telecom industry cluster is in its infancy,” said White. “There is little sense of community or cooperation among employers, and certainly no vision of future possibilities from collaborative action. Most players are locked in this ‘competitive paradigm’ and have not considered other alternatives. Unless this changes, the opportunity of a vibrant, growing industry cluster may be lost.”

The report was well received at the forum, said Jay Hambright, senior vice president of economic development for the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce.

“The forum was a successful coming together of minds, development of strategies, identification of strengths and weaknesses, such as what should take place and how it should take place,” said Hambright. “How the telecommunications industry is handled now will be key to the future in Mississippi. It was very proactive for MDECD to make an effort to bring together this type of study. I’m still hearing from educators and economic developers about how the report and the forum were very much appreciated.”

Among the findings, the study showed a shortage of qualified applicants in the telecommunications arena and a critical need for workforce preparedness.

Carolyn Harrison, president of Capitol Staffing in Jackson, said that better cooperation is needed from Mississippi colleges.

“With the base of telecom companies here, there is no doubt we need to expand the industry in other areas,” she said. “Yes, we need better cooperation from our four-year and two-year colleges in providing all levels of trained and/or educated candidates for the telecom workforce. There is a shortage of the technically skilled people. It is difficult to recruit in the needed areas because of our pay scales. When recruitment is successful, retention of those recruited is even more challenging. Shortages in the customer service field are increasing. I am not aware of any institutions that offer specific courses or training. With 2% unemployment in the Jackson metro area, and the continued increased demand for qualified candidates, administratively or technically, recruiters will continue to be challenged.”

Incentives for telecommunications industry comparable to incentives for manufacturers and distributors should be offered by the state to incoming companies, said Hambright.

“An unsuccessful effort was made last year to try to include that as a part of our incentive package,” he said.

In the tri-county area, a half dozen prospective telecommunications businesses are considering locating here, said Hambright.

“One particular prospect is looking for up to 100,000 square feet of Class A office space and a majority of their 350 employees could be college graduates with business degrees,” he said. “Other employees that do not fall in that category could be community college graduates that would require additional training. But we’re competing with 16 other metropolitan statistical areas and they will only choose one location.”

MCI WorldCom, the single largest telecommunications employer in Jackson, with 1,100 employees at its newly built 420,000-square-foot corporate campus in Clinton, will have a bigger slice of the telecommunications pie when pending mergers and acquisitions are complete. The company has approximately 70,000 employees in 65 countries and posted revenue in 1998 that totaled more than $30 billion.

Creating a temporary statewide telecommunications steering committee that would address concerns and opportunities in the telecommunications industry would be an effective start, the study revealed.

“Identifying the needs of the industry and helping employees and students acquire the skills they need to meet those needs are essential if we are to develop a long-term strategy for building the telecommunications industry in the Jackson metro area,” Heidel said.

At the forum, industry leaders said it would make sense not to designate the King Edward Hotel facility solely for telecommunications — it might be better served as a multi-purpose center because most telecommunications companies have their own training facilities.

Last year, the Mississippi Telecommunications Conference and Training Center Commission voted to accept the proposal to locate the telecommunications conference and training center downtown in the King Edward Hotel. The $50.2 million project would call for converting the parking garage into the telecommunications center with conference rooms and an amphitheater.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or e-mail mbj@msbusiness.com.


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