Effort seeks to align schools, workforce

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi is poised for growth, but that will require a broadly skilled workforce, a North Carolina-based nonprofit said on Tuesday.

MDC Inc., is studying ways Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties can produce graduates with the skills its employers demand and ways those graduates can be more aware of available careers. This week, it is providing updates on that effort, including a meeting for Lee County on Tuesday morning held at the CREATE Foundation’s office. Separate meetings were scheduled in Pontotoc and New Albany.

“This region has a lot of strengths we don’t always see in rural areas,” said Colin Austin, a senior program director with MDC. “The data is showing the economy is doing well, but you can see the impact of the CREATE Foundation over time in its ability to bring people together for new ideas. You can see the strengths of the community colleges, their relationship with industry and their ability to provide training and to be a training partner.”

Harnessing those strengths, Austin said, will require greater coordination and collaboration. Most of the region’s major employment sectors appear poised for job growth, he said.

The project is being funded by the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund, a $50 million endowment from Toyota to enhance education in the three counties that worked together to attract it to the region. MDC specializes in helping communities “close the gaps that separate people from opportunity,” its website says.

“We need to have a deeper understanding as a community of what the issues are related to career readiness and awareness and what the roles are of education, higher education, employers and families to develop a process to better educate our young people,” said CREATE President Mike Clayborne, who facilitates an advisory committee that oversees the endowment. “We need to see what systems and processes can be put in place to make a difference.”

MDC’s preliminary findings included the need to produce a pipeline of workers with broad skills and to better understand the needs and experiences of the emerging workforce. It also found:

• Schools see value in career readiness activities, but lack time and resources to carry them out in a systematic way.

• Several promising programs exist, but they are not coordinated and are not operating at significant scale.

• Employers are turning to community colleges on an individual basis rather than working together as industry sectors.

MDC has been working on the project since the spring – researching the workforce and education system; compiling an inventory of existing programs; analyzing data and interviewing employers, school and college leaders and local leaders. It also will interview high school students to get their perspective.

The organization also met on Tuesday with a 40-member leadership committee that included representatives of kindergarten to 12th-grade education, higher education and businesses. That committee will help shape the recommendations of MDC’s final report, to be presented in November.

That report will guide the Toyota Wellspring Advisory Committee as it determines its next actions to help develop the region’s workforce.

Another community forum will be held in New Albany today at 5:15 p.m. at the Magnolia Civic Center.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com