Webb met with state legislators last week and repeated what has become his mantra. It goes like this:
Mississippi has lost a huge share of its manufacturing jobs since the mid-1990s. It doesn’t have the capacity to bounce back quickly from that loss, much less from a vicious recession like the one we’ve just been through, because our people are undereducated and unhealthy. Our economic recovery will lag the nation’s because our “human capital” is lacking.
Webb has been publicly pushing this message for at least a couple of years, including at the CREATE Foundation’s 2010 State of the Region meeting in Tupelo. At that meeting he termed the 10 years just past Mississippi’s “lost decade” and called attention to the harsh reality that nearly half the manufacturing jobs in the 16-county Northeast Mississippi region had vanished since 1995.
The recent recession hit us hard, as has been clear by lingering double-digit unemployment. But as Webb says, the “structural shift” from relatively low-skilled manufacturing jobs was under way long before the economic downturn of the last few years, and it will continue as the nation emerges from the recession.
Our region and state, even with a positive jolt from Toyota, will face tough challenges in this transitional period. The main reason is that we lag the nation in the educational attainment level of our citizens. And Northeast Mississippi trails the state as a whole.
Fewer of us finished high school, fewer went to college, fewer have advanced degrees. And that, Webb will tell anyone who’ll listen, is the biggest drag on per capita income in Mississippi. The correlation between educational attainment and personal income is indisputable.
What we should conclude from these facts seems straightforward and simple. Every conceivable effort must be made to keep kids in school, to get those who have dropped out back in some kind of alternate degree or training program, to develop policy that encourages more people to pursue and stay with post-high school education, and to retrain adults who’ve long since left school and whose skills are no longer sufficient for what the economy demands.
Critical, too, is the recognition that while all students aren’t intellectually equal, no students are intellectually expendable. If we’ve had that attitude, we can’t afford it anymore – certainly from an economic perspective, but from a moral one, too.
Concluding what needs to happen and making it happen are two different things, the second much harder than the first. We are a state that, unfortunately, has undervalued education for most of our history, and it has cost us dearly.
The message is clearer than ever that we need a cultural change. The new Legislature, and the rest of us, need to heed the message.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.