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Colleges Partner on Economic Development

Colleges Partner
: Southwest Mississippi Community College President Steven Bishop (left) and Co-Lin President Jane Hulon Sims (right) discuss economic development with Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves.

Co-Lin and Southwest Mississippi Community College (SMCC) are partnering in organizing an economic development commission encompassing the eleven state counties served by the two colleges.

Co-Lin President Dr. Jane Hulon Sims announced the initiative at the culmination of an economic development summit last month hosted by her college and SMCC at the Thames Center on the Co-Lin campus.

The new commission will include local economic developers, business and community leaders and elected officials from Adams, Amite, Copiah, Franklin, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Pike, Simpson, Walthall and Wilkinson Counties -- many of whom were on hand at the Co-Lin event sponsored by Canfor, Dungan Engineering and Rex Lumber.

Hulon said she and SMCC President Steven Bishop, along with officials involved in economic development in the 11-county region would work on formulating and implementing strategies to recruit new business, support business expansion and create jobs as part of the commission.

Hulon declared that "it was time to act" and go beyond talk. "If not now, when," she implored.

At the economic development summit, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves led an assortment of speakers that set the stage for Hulon's announcement:

  • Reeves laid out basic economic development guidelines.

  • Dr. Bill Ashley from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) cited demographics data facing economic developers in Southwest Mississippi.

  • Cooperative Energy's Mitch Stringer discussed the economic development process.

  • State Workforce Director Ryan Miller spotlighted Accelerate, Mississippi new workforce development program.

Reeves cited the "focus on workforce" as the most significant change in economic development in recent years. "We used to emphasize incentives -- tax breaks, for example," he explained. "Now it's labor -- people trained for high-demand jobs." He added that Mississippi has been good at "training workers to the specs" of businesses locating in the state, but "we're doing it backwards." "We need to do the training first to recruit -- to meet the needs of businesses looking to locate somewhere before they make their decisions," he pointed out.

The Governor also said economic development must be data-driven, based on the reality of communities and the needs of businesses. "Consider the Return on Investment you want from recruiting a business -- the types of jobs, per capita income," he counseled. "Think through the jobs situation -- jobs available, skills needed."

Above all, economic development is about working together, Reeves said. "We create opportunities working together, not by competing," he asserted.

MDA's Ashley highlighted key demographic realities that Southwest Mississippi economic developers must factor into their business recruiting strategies in their eleven-county region. Significant data:

  • Total population of 228,665.

  • A workforce of 87,000 with 8.55 percent unemployed.

  • 20,000 workers commute outside to jobs outside the region and 20,000 commute to jobs inside the region.

  • 57,000 work in manufacturing, which produces $774 million annually followed by transportation/warehousing ($766 million), government ($318 million) and agriculture ($124 million).

  • Production workers are predominantly in the 25-44 year old age group.

  • The most concentrated and competitive industries are poultry, plastics, apparel, paper, power generation with the most jobs in production, healthcare and business and financial sectors.

  • The most job posting are for work in transportation/materials moving, installation and repair and production, with 12,530 for truck drivers.

Stringer reminded economic developers about the nature of their work.

"Your job involves retention and expansion of existing business as well as the slow, often unrewarding work of recruiting," he pointed out. "You are, above all, a project manager. But you have many other concerns: Community development towards improving quality of life that businesses seek in locations. As a subject matter expert, serving information-seekers. Finally, trying to keep a lot of people happy."

The economic developer's all-important customer -- the business location decision maker -- has higher expectations and a shorter timeline today -- about six months, with a focus on site elimination and a lot of unknowns, Stringer said. In order of importance, he said site decisions are based on labor skills, highway access, energy sources, overall community quality of life, labor and site occupancy costs, tax rates, tax exemptions and other incentives and shipping costs.

Miller, who leads AccelerateMS -- the new Mississippi workforce development program, said his office has launched an "ecosystem approach" in which localized needs of eight distinct regions or ecosystems are identified to build a customized labor pool that drives economic growth.

“Our office has the support, encouragement and direction of the full state leadership," he said. "For the first time in state history, this is a coordinated approach to workforce development like we have never seen before."

In the wake of COVID-19, the state recognized the need for an office to coordinate workforce development — an office to create new partnerships with industry and recruit and retain talent, Miller pointed out. "We needed to promote a healthy workforce with a strategy that looked at everything from top to bottom, left to right, and stem to stern," he said. We have some new tools that have emerged from COVID-19 -- Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and other virtual learning platforms." Miller added that Mississippi “has a lot of partners with this office who are doing some great things to make sure that our workers receive the training they need to fill skilled jobs and pursue the most rewarding career paths.


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