Work force challenged by new demands

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

As Toyota begins producing cars, the automaker and its suppliers will bring some 4,000 jobs to Northeast Mississippi.
The company will enter a region already beginning to see its manufacturing jobs become more highly skilled and technical. That transition is likely to accelerate over the next decade.
Meanwhile, health care providers will seek an influx of employees as a large number of baby boomers age and require more care.
Northeast Mississippi’s work force will face new demands over the next decade. And if the region is to fully leverage its growth opportunities, its leaders say, it must prepare that work force to meet these demands.
“The economy is rapidly changing, particularly in areas of technology,” said Darrin Webb, Mississippi’s state economist. “Employers are looking for people with critical thinking and analytical skills. They need employees who can think on their feet.”
Producing those workers will be a challenge in a region whose educational attainment trails the state and the nation. Mississippi ranks last in the country in the percentage of adults 25 and older with at least a high school diploma, according to the 2005-2009 American Community Survey.
Not only does Mississippi’s 78.9 percent trail the nation’s 84.6 percent, but 13 of Northeast Mississippi’s 16 counties sit below the state’s average. Only Lee, Lafayette and Oktibbeha have a higher percentage than the state, and all three still lag the national average.

Education woes
Meanwhile, Mississippi ranks 48th in the nation in the percentage of its adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree (19.1 percent), ahead of only Arkansas and West Virginia.
“We are the least educated state. We have the poorest health, and we lead the nation in unwed mothers,” Webb said. “We have some systemic issues that will be a governor on our growth.”
Enter Northeast Mississippi’s community colleges. If the region is to prepare its work force for the new challenges, Itawamba, East Mississippi, Northeast Mississippi and Northwest Mississippi community colleges will do most of the heavy lifting.
The community colleges are the fastest way to retrain workers and prepare them for new or changing careers, and their services will be in demand, especially in manufacturing and health care fields.
“Our economic engine depends primarily on health care and manufacturing,” said James Williams, vice president of economic and community services at Itawamba Community College.
Although health care programs draw much interest, they also are expensive to run, Williams said. Funding will limit class sizes.
Manufacturing training will focus on a shift from manual labor to more automation.
The days where employees work on an assembly line in a button factory with a single repetitive task are numbered, Williams said.
Highly skilled workers – such as those in tool-and-die, facility maintenance and industrial maintenance – will be much more in demand. Many companies will use robots that employees must program.
“You will need the physical skills, but you also need to be able to think, problem solve and work in teams,” Williams said. “You may need to write a good, concise e-mail to address a problem.”
Todd Beadles, vice president of work force development for the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, called the region’s current work force “good” and “strong,” but said it must improve.
“If we are going to continue to compete with the global economy here in Tupelo, Mississippi, we need to raise the bar,” Beadles said.
Williams and Beadles each stressed that employees, particularly those in manufacturing, now need to know more than just how to perform a task. Abilities such as critical thinking and working in teams have become much more important.
Even applying for jobs demands more from today’s job-seekers. Many positions, including those at Toyota, now require applications by computer, rather than on paper.
“They are intimidated by the skill sets that are needed to even apply for the job,” said Itawamba Community College President David Cole.
Schools must close these gaps.
Itawamba Community College houses a training program for new Toyota employees at its Belden campus.
The University of Mississippi recently created a Center for Manufacturing Excellence to prepare the engineers that the region’s new manufacturing jobs require.
Mississippi State University’s Franklin Furniture Institute helps employees adjust to modern manufacturing practices.
Once completed, The Center for Professional Futures will serve as a state-of-the-art vocational school for students in the eight school districts located in Pontotoc, Union and Lee Counties. Those are the three counties that partnered to attract Toyota to the region.
The targeted groundbreaking is around 2013, with construction expected to take about a year and a half. When it is ready, the center will offer classes in advanced manufacturing, health care, legal services, architecture and engineering.
“We need to promote a culture of education,” Webb said. “People need to see that their own personal commitment to education is a wise investment of time and dollars. I’d promote a culture of lifelong learning.”
David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation, said students also need a greater understanding the world’s impact on the local economy.
“My rant is we need more global emphasis,” Rumbarger said. “Students should know where the price of oil futures comes from. They should know what the trade deficit is and why it is important.
“The marketplace is global.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.