BILL CRAWFORD: Talk is cheap on workforce

By Bill Crawford

Mississippi’s top leaders touted the importance of workforce development last week.
It started with Jim Barksdale, interim executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, continued with Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and concluded with Gov. Phil Bryant.
The occasion was the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual meeting.
During his keynote remarks, Gov. Bryant announced workforce development as the first of three priorities in his new Mississippi Works program. He also unveiled the executive committee leadership of Mississippi Works and said more than 100 business men and women would serve on its board.
Mississippi Works is a privately funded, business led, statewide coalition similar to former Gov. Haley Barbour’s Momentum Mississippi. Bryant said its top three priorities are:
1. “Help craft a long-range strategy to expand economic opportunities in Mississippi with a focus on workforce development.
2. “Help bring new investments to all regions of our state while continuing to grow existing businesses and expand them into new markets.
3. “Provide a forum for Mississippi business leaders to learn about all the great work going on throughout our state, giving them tools they can use in spreading Mississippi’s success stories around our nation and world.”
Blueprint Mississippi 2011, the business led statewide strategic planning process that Bryant and other state leaders have endorsed, also lists workforce development as a top priority.
Great talk…but will they walk the walk?
Funding for workforce development is headed down. The main providers of workforce development in Mississippi are its 15 public community colleges. The innovative Workforce Enhancement Training Fund that Barbour created using unemployment insurance fees is down about 25 percent. The Legislature has shown no indication it will make up the shortfall with appropriated dollars.
One result is the State Board for Community Colleges suspended its challenge grant program. In part, this program provides funds for colleges to upgrade equipment and training systems needed to train workers for today’s high tech industries. Recently, Alabama, which also has budget problems, funded demonstration grants to community colleges for modern systems several Mississippi colleges need.
Seems Alabama’s finding a way to walk while Mississippi talks.
Few leaders on Bryant’s Mississippi Works executive committee, the State Workforce Investment Board executive committee, the Blueprint Mississippi steering committee, or even the State Board for Community Colleges have visited the several model workforce development programs colleges offer to see what they do and what they need.
You might think that before they set policy, allocate funds, or award grants, some would visit model programs like East Mississippi’s manufacturing skills training program, East Central’s industrial maintenance training program, and Itawamba’s Belden Center Toyota training program?
Talk is cheap.
Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.