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Workforce training programs on the chopping block

As I See It

Mississippi was ahead of its time when the Legislature passed a workforce training bill in 1994. Legislators recognized that our adult workforce would need continual training in order to handle the higher-tech jobs of the future. They also were wise in designating our community colleges as the agencies to deliver the lion’s share of that training. So far, so good.

Now we hit the glitch. Rather than providing an ongoing funding source for workforce training, they chose a contingent funding plan. Actually, this worked well for a time. As long as the state budget had a surplus, that surplus was divided among educational institutions. The community college slice of the pie funded workforce training. For the most astute readers, this arrangement was referred to as HB400.

What happens when there is no surplus? Simple enough to figure out; there are no HB400 funds and no workforce training funds.

Everyone scrambled for state funds this year, and the scramble is taking place now for next year. The Governor has been forced to cut the state budget twice this year in order to comply with regulations. Anxious eyes are being cast upon the so-called tobacco trust fund, especially as a fix for the beleaguered Medicaid operation. This is not a good year to be a member of the Legislature.

The Legislative Budget Office has proposed that funding for workforce training be slashed by 70% for the next fiscal year. That represents a reduction of nearly $9 million. To put it in people terms, almost 150,000 Mississippians received state-subsidized workforce training last year. If the funds are cut by 70%, 105,000 fewer Mississippians will receive training next year.

In addition, the community colleges are faced with a proposed cut of $26 million, or a 15% reduction in funding for next year. Since the 15 community colleges around the state are the delivery vehicles for training, cutting their budget reduces their capacity to fulfill that role.

Mississippi is losing manufacturing jobs like blood from a cut artery. The offsetting increase in service jobs looks good on paper, but service doesn’t command the higher wages that are paid to workers in manufacturing jobs. We cannot turn our backs on manufacturing if we want to make the economic pie bigger rather than merely slicing the existing pie into smaller pieces.

In these difficult economic times, there is need to separate the chaff from the wheat. Many taxpayers believe that Mississippi’s highest priorities are education and health care. If education, both for youngsters and oldsters, is really a top priority, then funding for all forms of education should not be cut. There is always enough political pork in state budgets to find a few dollars here and there. Our legislators need to step up to the plate, cut out the political pork and take a stand for what matters most to Mississippians — education and health care.

In order to avoid this problem in the future, no part of education should be funded with contingent funds. Legislators need to remove workforce education funding from the HB400 arrangement and make it a line item on the state’s budget.

Nissan officials took one look at the contingent funding for workforce training provided by the state and opted out. They negotiated funds for training as part of their contract with the state. Therefore, Nissan employees will be trained even as other employers who have been loyal, taxpaying citizens for decades will go without. There’s something wrong with this picture. My Daddy always told me to stay with the girl I took to the dance. That was good social advice and I believe there is wisdom there for this current problem in funding workforce training.

The future of Mississippi depends on providing a trained, or trainable, workforce in order to retain the jobs we have and encourage others to move to our state. In fact, the state has promised training funds to companies as an enticement to locate here and they did. If we renege on this commitment, who will believe us in the future?

Thought for the Moment

Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com. He serves as the Hinds Community College representative to the State Workforce Development Council.


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