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`Now is not the time to slide backwards,` said SBCJC chief

Workforce training funds mired in budget cutbacks

As vital as workforce training is for the state, the amount of funding the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges (SBCJC) will receive next year is up in the air.

This year, the SBCJC had approximately $12.4 million for project money to train Mississippi’s workers, including a $4 million carryover from the previous year in anticipation of budget cutbacks. Less than $1.5 million remains until July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Senate Bill 3139 calls for approximately $5 million in appropriations for project money. At that level, funds would be committed by the end of October. Adding to SBCJC’s woes, $6 million in budget contingency funding for this fiscal year will not be available in the next.

“It’s ironic that we’re looking at such a drastic reduction in workforce funding at a time when we understand that getting and keeping jobs depends on it,” said Dr. Olon Ray, SBCJC executive director. “It’s like cutting off your lifeblood. The truth is, the Mississippi workforce is behind to begin with and without sizable, considerable intervention in the form of education and good training, we’ll continue to slide further and further behind the requirements for getting good jobs for the future.”

Senate Bill 3139 calls for $9.6 million in appropriations for “Workforce Education Program and Industrial Training,” an amount Ray said isn’t sufficient.

“Twelve million (dollars) would keep us where we are this year and only maintains status quo, but $16 million is needed to give us a chance to reach out to the large numbers of people who have lost their jobs,” said Ray. “We are going to have a large impact on training first and second tier producers to support Nissan and the money needed to do that wasn’t provided in the Nissan package. There’s no way we can carry out a responsible training program to support Nissan’s suppliers on the kind of money we’re getting.”

State lawmakers, who have not yet determined the budget for fiscal year 2003, will probably iron out details during the upcoming conference weekend.

“There’s been little or no talk about what will happen,” said Wayne Stonecypher, associate executive director for programs for SBCJC. “Last year, legislators cut back a little bit but picked up some on conference weekend.”

Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said, “We are very concerned about the reduction in workforce training funds. If we are going to be effective in replacing the jobs we have lost, we have got to have a trained workforce. We have to have training to get the jobs. It takes time to train people and this needs to be in place. If you start cutting the things that make you competitive, it can be a disaster.”

The buzz around political circles is that deeper cuts are anticipated across the board.

“It makes me nervous when they are just now talking about reassessing the budget and will possibly come up with even less money available, but if it has to be that way then we need to go ahead and face up to it,” said Ray. “Word I get from legislative leadership is that they’ll do everything they can to improve our funding situation from the present recommendations.”

Repeated calls to Senate appropriations committee chairman Jack Gordon (D-Okolona) were not returned for this story by press time.

“When you get into a recession, spending decisions come in a real herky-jerky manner,” said MEC president Blake Wilson. “When people are on a tight budget and they know they have to buy something, they hold onto it until the very last minute.

“Everybody has to get through tough economic times. We need to make sure that short-term cuts don’t jeopardize our ability to deliver services long-term. That’s why we’re watching the upcoming conference weekend. Because of the intensity level I’ve seen in the Legislature, I sense that legislators are trying to find a way to make it all stretch. They’ve gotten over the big hump and that was the Medicaid issue.”

So far this year, SBCJC hasn’t been able to set aside much money for FY 2003 because “the demand has been high and the economy slow,” said Stonecypher.

Greg James, human resources manager for New Albany-based Piper Impact, said the state’s workforce training assistance has allowed his company to focus on production.

“We’re not in the business to train,” said James. “We’re in the business to make products. The more floor space we can dedicate to make a profit, the better off we are in the community.”

Earlier this year, Piper Impact won the 2001 Excellence Award at the Mississippi Quality Awards program established by the Workforce Education Act of 1994. Its two manufacturing plants in New Albany employ 750 people.

An average of 80% of all new jobs in Mississippi are created from existing industry like Piper Impact, said Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Foundation and Port Commission.

“There’s no question that workforce training is essential for Mississippi,” he said.

Even though success stories are plentiful, Ray insisted the state is falling behind on training Mississippi’s laborers.

“We are going to move further behind unless we move decisively to get the resources to do it with,” Ray said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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