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MDA chief shows early leadership on workforce issue

Like any good salesman about to embark on selling a new product, Brent Christensen has assessed his product’s strengths and weaknesses.

The new executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority sees the state set to play a strong hand in the energy and health care sectors. Mississippi’s hand is on the weak side, though, in a crucial category: workforce development, Christensen says.

He showed leadership in bringing that message to business and civic leaders earlier this month in a talk he gave the Madison County Business League and the Madison County Economic Development Authority.

It’s unlikely the leaders he addressed saw his warnings as anything close to a news bulletin. Most any Mississippi business executive or government policy setter will concede the state must do better at producing workers who either have skills for particular jobs or — at minimum — the ability to learn the skills

The significance is that Christensen has staked out an upgrade of Mississippi’s workforce as a key priority in his first months on the job. As the state’s top economic development professional, he has influence in the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and legislative leaders.

Mississippi Development Association director Brent Christensen.

After all, with strong job growth they maintain their political futures. Without it, voters won’t be enthusiastic about keeping them in any office.

It’s not just the politicians who have a stake. The future of all Mississippians is tied, to some degree, to how well Christensen sells the state as the place to start up a business, relocate a business or maintain a business. That’s quite a task if you lack confidence in the quality of the workers you can provide businesses.

What the state has done so far, “Simply is not good enough,” he told the Madison County gathering. “Right now we don’t have that workforce development system that delivers consistency across the board.”

Christensen could have collected every bit as much applause from the business and civic leaders by sticking to the positives, perhaps mentioning Mississippi’s workforce deficiencies as but an aside. He instead parked the issue in a prominent place in his talk and left audience members with something to mull — and perhaps act on — in the months ahead.

Candor may not be a beneficial trait for a used-car salesman but when your job is to create a prosperous future for an entire state, it’s best to be upfront about the product you’re selling and how to make it better.

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