OUR OPINION: Manufacturing revival requires culture change

By NEMS Daily Journal

For more than half a century, manufacturing has been the staple of Northeast Mississippi’s economy. For many years Lee County has been the state’s premier manufacturing center.
But manufacturing has been on the decline nationally the last couple of decades, and that trend wasn’t kind to our region.
Between 1995 and 2010, the 16-county Northeast Mississippi region lost half of its manufacturing jobs. The number went from 34,000 to 17,000 – a precipitous drop. Furniture, long the regional mainstay, took the biggest hit.
But manufacturing is making, ever so gradually, a comeback. As reported at the CREATE Foundation’s State of the Region meeting last week, 2010 was the first year in a decade and a half that Northeast Mississippi’s manufacturing employment not only didn’t decline but showed a slight upward tick of about 200 jobs.
That’s certainly good news, and it’s made even more encouraging by the realization that Toyota and its suppliers weren’t yet included in that calculation.
But there’s a warning sign here: This isn’t your father’s (or mother’s) manufacturing. The jobs will be fewer, for one thing, with automation fueling the ability of U.S. manufacturers to keep more of their operations at home. But even more important to understand is that the jobs that will be there will require increasingly more education, more training and more skills.
There was a time in Northeast Mississippi when a man or a woman could drop out of high school, get a job at a low-skill manufacturing plant and make a decent living. Those days are over.
But the culture – the understanding of the new circumstances by most people – hasn’t yet caught up with the new reality. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the high dropout rates that plague so many of the school systems in our region.
Along with higher skill levels required for the new manufacturing jobs will be higher performance and quality expectations. To get and keep new jobs, workers will need soft skills – teamwork, collaboration, commitment – that are of prime importance.
In other words, Northeast Mississippi’s ability to fully participate in the new manufacturing revival, to build on the base of new jobs that have already arrived, will rest in large measure on how well our people understand what’s required and how well our education and training institutions can give it to them.
Northeast Mississippi has a history of adapting to change and coming out ahead of the game. The current challenge is one of the greatest the region has faced, with our education attainment level still trailing even the state’s.
Full participation in the manufacturing revival will require a sustained commitment to cultural and systemic change.