Leaders stake positions on 'obvious' key issues

MEC President Scott Waller, a former Columbus resident, speaks to more than 100 Golden Triangle community leaders Tuesday during one of the state business group's listening tours in Columbus.
Staff Writer

If state lawmakers have any doubts about the value of a skilled work force or improved infrastructure, they need look no further than one of the Mississippi Economic Council's regional listening tours.
More than 150 Golden Triangle business leaders attended the latest stop in Columbus Tuesday, and as one of those attending said, "Sometimes you have to state the obvious."

The MEC, which is the equivalent of the state's Chamber of Commerce, held a similar event in Starkville last fall and has made stops in every part of the state.

And at almost every location, the opinions on basic questions largely have been the same, although the Columbus results Tuesday reached some new highs, according to MEC President Scott Waller, a former Columbus newspaper reporter.

For instance, when asked their thoughts on the region's work force, 77 percent of those attending Tuesday's luncheon thought it was somewhat prepared and another two percent thought it was very prepared. Those were the highest total numbers in the state. Only 19 percent of the group thought the work force was not prepared at all.

Similarly, 74 percent of the group thought the state's economy is better than it was five years ago. That also was tops in the state.

But on most other issues, the Golden Triangle group mirrored other areas.

As an example, 56 percent thought improving the work force was the key to building an even more robust economy while 23 percent thought the state's image was a major stumbling block. Those numbers were similar to other areas, Waller said.

And 92 percent of the group rated improving transportation as extremely or very important, a response Waller admitted was predictable.

"Transportation impacts everyone in the state," he said, noting the MEC looked at Arkansas and Georgia which have undertaken major highway improvement programs and found the spending has paid off in more jobs and more outside investment.

Those attending Tuesday were most divided on what is hurting the state's ability to attract new residents, with 26 percent saying education at all levels, 24 percent saying matching training to jobs, and 22 percent listing lack of amenities. Others listed the state's overall image and the overall state of the economy.

Two universities -- Mississippi State and Mississippi University for Women -- and four community colleges, led by East Mississippi, may be influencing some of the perceptions in the region, especially when it comes to job training.

While not mentioning it directly, much of Waller's presentation touched on programs such as the high-tech training center, known as "Communiversity" under construction on Highway 82 just west of Paccar. The partnership with EMCC, local  counties, and state and federal governments will focus on needed job skills and jobs of the future.

"We've got to build on the things that are good and keep them going forward," he said, using the Biblical David and Goliath story to illustrate how the Golden Triangle used the David mentality to start building successes more than a decade ago.

"A lot of things are happening out there in work force development," Waller continued, noting that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the state will require some form of post-high-school education.
That number already is at 61 percent in the state but only 39 percent of those require a four-year degree, he added.

The areas that need attention include science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM, health care and community service, all areas on which the state's community college system has been focused.

And when it comes to skills, 53 percent of the group said problem-solving abilities were their biggest need among workers. Another 25 percent said written and verbal abilities while 11 percent said reading comprehension.

"We've got to connect the dots at all levels of education, from pre-kindergarten to our colleges. We've got to identify the programs that are working and empower schools to do things differently," he continued, referencing to programs such as the Work Keys testing started in area schools three years ago by the Golden triangle Development Link to encourage technical skills training and build a database of workers ready for many of the high-tech manufacturing spots the Link is recruiting.

"Education and work force development or inextricably linked," he said afterwards, citing improved reading scores and graduation rates as small signs the state is making progress.
On other subjects, Waller said the MEC:

-- Has long pushed for solutions to the Internet sales tax dilemma that is killing  in-state businesses and revenue streams for local governments. He hopes two cases, especially one out of South Dakota, being reviewed by the Supreme Court will eliminate the roadblocks. The state now collects about $350 million in those taxes but is losing several times that  in revenues.

-- Continues to push the Legislature to find ways to invest in the state's transportation system although it's unlikely state lawmakers will approve an increase in the gas tax, although research shows it is the best solution;

-- Will push for at least part of any revenue generated by a state lottery to go to transportation and education. Waller stopped short of supporting the lottery and said the Legislature must first decide if it wants to approve it and then address how to divvy up the revenues.