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Entrepreneurs Corner: Vocational education a large part of construction business

MABC’s Edens says four-year university isn’t for everyone

Buddy Edens, of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, says Mississippi is spending too much money on college and university education and not enough on vocational training.

Buddy Edens, of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, says Mississippi is spending too much money on college and university education and not enough on vocational training.

Very few people in the Magnolia State would quibble over the importance of education to the state’s future well-being, progress and prosperity.  As we all know, Mississippi gets too much negative press around the United States when it comes to education.

Generally, when it comes to a discussion of education, the issues tend to focus on secondary and higher education in the state’s colleges and universities, and of course, the better job we do in those institutions, the better off our state will be in the long run.

But I was reminded recently that a four-year university degree may not be the best course for all young people in our state. In a meeting with Buddy Edens, president of Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, our discussion was centered around the importance of trade and vocational education. This is an area that Buddy feels very strongly about, and rightly so.

“A big problem in Mississippi has to do with the availability of trained workers in the trades,” Buddy said. “Most of the money gets spent on our colleges and universities, and I’m concerned that we’re shortchanging a lot of our kids.”

He went on to explain that “half of the kids who graduate from high school wind up underemployed.”

What does he mean by that?

“Just take a look around,” he suggested.  “A lot of these kids wind up working in menial jobs and they don’t have much of a future to look forward to. What we really need is to get more of them into the trades.”

The front of the MABC offices in Jackson.

The front of the MABC offices in Jackson.

My next question for Buddy was, of course, what kind of future could a young person expect in the trades?

“Think about this,” he suggested.  “A journeyman craftsperson can make more than college professors or teachers. A lot of the current jobs in building and contracting are held by people who are 55-60 years old. That means there’s going to be a real need for younger people to come along and move into some of these jobs.”

Buddy’s job as president of the MABC gives him a good vantage point. The association is one of the largest in the United States, with 1,100 members who collectively employ over 66,000 people. From his point of view “things have been really tough these past few years, about as bad as I’ve seen it in 40 years.”

Despite that, he thinks we’re seeing the leading edge of a turnaround that will take hold in the next two to three years in Mississippi.

“You have to look beyond the horizon,” he said. “We have an aging infrastructure. Green projects are going to be more and more important. And there’s a lot of pent-up demand when things do start to turn around. That means jobs for Mississippians who are trained and capable.”

From his point of view, the right investments in trade education will in fact, pay bigger dividends than just about any other program.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “Trade wages and benefits in Mississippi are comparable with most other parts of the country, and a qualified journeyman tradesperson can go just about anywhere and get a job.”

We also talked about an issue that was, at one time, far more practiced than it is today: apprenticeships. In times past, apprenticing was the foundation for many kinds of positions, and there seems to be a lot of sound common sense in having someone learn directly from a master of a trade.

MABC has an active apprenticeship program, working with 450-500 young people per year. The education is often sponsored by contractors who are making investments to train qualified tradespeople.

“We really need to get the word out on this,” said Buddy. “We need to provide some incentives to get these kids into trade education as a great alternative.”

From his point of view, organizations such as the MEC are helping to raise awareness on this issue.

“There are going to be a ton of opportunities down the road,” he suggested. “Mississippi is going to grow. Good things are going to happen. That’s why we need to be well-positioned to take advantages of the opportunities in construction, building and contracting. We need to train and hire our own kids, rather than wind up hiring undocumented immigrants for those jobs.”

It’s hard to argue with some of these considerations. There is no question that a great deal of the focus in recent decades has been squarely on college and university education. Perhaps it’s time, as Buddy suggests, that we look for some balance.


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About Alan Turner