In roughly the same period, Northeast Mississippi’s 16 counties have seen manufacturing employment drop from 73,815 to 43,475 – a 41 percent decline.
Darrin Webb, the senior economist at Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning, calls the 10 years just past our state’s “lost decade.” At the annual State of the Region meeting last week, he emphasized the special impact on our region.
“You in Northeast Mississippi have been on the front lines of this,” he said. “You’ve been far more dependent on manufacturing than the rest of the state, so you’ve been particularly hard hit.”
The last 10 years have included one garden-variety recession and one very ugly one. But don’t blame job losses all on national economic downturns, Webb said.
“That structural shift was taking place before the recession and it will be taking place after the recession,” he declared.
Anyone who regularly attends the State of the Region meetings convened by CREATE Foundation’s Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi knows that they’re honest, no-gloss gatherings. It’s one place where challenges will be laid squarely and unequivocally before the region’s leaders.
Recent years’ meetings have emphasized educational attainment as the key to economic improvement. All the data point that way, and Webb emphasized that improving the education level of Northeast Mississippians isn’t optional:
“Your major obstacle to growth is education – in terms of quantity and quality,” he said.
That goes for the state as a whole, but Northeast Mississippi – in spite of our self-image as being a step ahead of the rest of the state – actually trails Mississippi as a whole in per capita income and its traveling companions, high school and college graduation rates.
It’s the jobs that our large undereducated population segment has held in the past that are disappearing and unlikely to return. This “structural shift” makes education more important than ever.
We should all know this by now, but it takes relentless focus and persistence – and tangible action – to do anything about it.
It doesn’t mean manufacturing won’t be important anymore. Most of the good economic news in Northeast Mississippi so far this year has been in job announcements in that manufacturing mainstay, the furniture industry. We’ll need those jobs.
But they won’t carry the load by themselves. Furniture has shed a third or more of the jobs in that sector since the mid-1990s and the struggle will be to retain what we have.
The imperative will be to get people educated and trained to take on the new higher-skilled manufacturing jobs that will be available when the economy improves – think automotive – while branching out into new sectors as well. All of which means turning around a culture that still doesn’t always see the real value of education and marshaling all the resources available to put education more directly in the service of improving people’s lives.
That’s been done with the tuition guarantee program, which means nobody who wants to go to community college will be denied the opportunity because of money.
It’s being done in a big way with the announcement of Mississippi State and Ole Miss’ collaborative effort to focus their resources and expertise more directly and intentionally toward economic improvement in the region.
Ultimately, though, it will mean, as Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones put it, that “we need to have higher expectations of each other.” No one is expendable in this new economic age, no public institution should escape accountability, and no effort that improves education at all levels – including and especially for the youngest and most disadvantaged children – is wasted.
Hearing the stark economic realities Northeast Mississippi and the rest of the state face isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. The question then becomes, what do we do with what we know?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.