A highly touted success of Haley Barbour by Blueprint Mississippi was implementation of the current workforce system.
All this came to light last week at a hastily called meeting of community college presidents, state agency heads, planning and development districts, and Mississippi Works business leaders. Mississippi Works is the Bryant-appointed, business-led initiative to improve economic development in Mississippi. Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) staff facilitated the meeting.
Attendees learned Bryant wants to put an extra $9 million into workforce training, but first wants highly successful business CEO and education champion Jim Barksdale “to lead the development and implementation of a new workforce plan for the state.” Barksdale just completed a review of MDA for Bryant, serving as interim director for five months.
The current workforce system implemented by Barbour operates under the guidance of the State Workforce Investment Board (SWIB) made up of business leaders, agency heads, and others appointed by the governor. Barbour re-appointed the current board just before leaving office, checking Bryant’s ability to appoint members. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) staffs the board and manages federal Workforce Investment Act funds and WIN Job Center activities.
Community colleges serve as workforce training providers. Training funds come from a special diversion of unemployment insurance taxes into the Workforce Enhancement Training fund, a Barbour innovation. Until the recession, the so-called WET fund provided $20 annually for training, now less than $15 million. The WET fund is managed by the State Board for Community Colleges. Individual colleges work with businesses to develop training programs then submit them to the community college board for funding.
The left-out agency in the current system is MDA, the state’s economic development organization. Barbour moved federal Workforce Investment Act funding and activities out of MDA to MDES during his first term. However, many states prefer to have single agencies oversee economic and workforce development.
At the meeting, attendees heard MDES executive director Mark Henry, a Bryant appointee, say control of the SWIB and the WET fund should be transferred to MDA, prompting a retort by Itawamba Community College president David Cole.
Barksdale said the governor did not give him such instructions.
Barksdale will find that parts of the current workforce system, just like education, are dysfunctional and need revamping, while other parts are exceptional and should be replicated. He will also rediscover that government agencies operate as silos, business leadership is inconsistent, and political and personal agendas are in play.
Whatever agency structure he recommends, the real key will be improving leadership and cooperation. His most important recommendation, however, should be to keep training funds, like education funds, as protected from politics as possible.
Bill Crawford (email@example.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.