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Finding a way out


Thomas Huffman, 30, is a welder who attended East Mississippi Community College after dropping out of high school in West Point more than a decade ago.

Thomas Huffman, 30, is a welder who attended East Mississippi Community College after dropping out of high school in West Point more than a decade ago. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


Andrew Hazzard/Dispatch Staff



Thomas Huffman's life changed. 


A year ago he was living with his parents in West Point. Now he has a job, his own place and a new Chevrolet pickup. The difference, he said, was acquiring work skills.  


Huffman is 30. He dropped out of West Point High School in the ninth grade and spent most of the next decade moving toward becoming a Clay County poverty statistic. 


In Clay County, 24.3 percent of people live at or below the poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Lowndes County, it's 25.7 percent. In Oktibbeha County, it's 34.2 percent. 


Huffman, after bouncing through odd jobs that did not offer much advancement potential, made the decision to get his GED. In 2010, he did. 


He had an interest in welding. In August of 2013, he put that interest to the test and signed up for a nine-month workforce welding program at East Mississippi Community College. (The college also offers a two-year associates degree in applied science of welding and fabrication technology.) The program teaches basic, intermediate and advanced welding techniques. The hands-on education prepares students to take jobs as entry-level welders, Huffman said. 


Huffman finished the school with an American Welding Society certificate and the attention of Golden Triangle employers. 


"By the time I graduated, Glenn Machine Works was knocking on my door," Huffman said.  




Changing the mindset 


Improving local poverty conditions will involve boosting access to skills for low-income people, according to Dr. Darrin Webb, the current Director of the University Research Center and the state economist. 


"The real problem in poverty is skills," said Pete Walley, the director of the economic development planning bureau for Mississippi Public Universities Research Center. 


The Golden Triangle recently took a step toward boosting access to skills. 


Earlier this year, Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, alongside the Golden Triangle Development LINK, all pledged money to the Communiversity Workforce Training Facility with East Mississippi Community College. Lowndes County will provide $10 million, Oktibbeha County will provide $2.5 million and Clay County will chip in $1 million to the project. All of these contributions will be distributed over 15 years. 


The Communiversity's goal is to expand workforce training. 


Employment prospects are promising when it comes to skilled construction work, according to Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction industry trade association. There will be a 2 million-person shortage of skilled industry workers in the U.S. by the end of this decade, according to the association. With the economy rebuilding and construction projects breaking ground, the industry is finding that many skilled workers are retiring and there are fewer young people to fill the gaps. 


"There's jobs out there, but people don't have the certification," said Kendrick Hill, a graduate of EMCC's electrical program. 


Hill, 27, graduated from Columbus High School in 2005. He did not pursue higher education right away. Instead, he began working construction. 


Roughly three months ago, Hill graduated from EMCC with an associates electrician degree. He is now employed by Teltec Communications and wants to start his own company providing residential electrical services. 


Hill took out student loans to help pay for his courses, but said the program was affordable and many of his classmates were paying out of pocket. 


The program taught Hill commercial, residential and industrial electrician techniques. Getting the degree opened doors for him.  


"I would tell people to go ahead and do it," Hill said. "In the world we live in today, it's hard to get a job with just a high school diploma." 


Hill feels like he has options now. 


Huffman, meanwhile, admitted that while at his current job he is the low man on the totem pole, he is gaining skills, a better financial security and positioning himself for a brighter future. 


Walley, who said true economic poverty often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of hope, said true change comes when people begin believing in tomorrow's possibilities. 


"If you can change people's mindset," he said, "it can turn on the light bulb." 




Finding, mining resources 


Anner Cunningham is a project specialist with the Educational Opportunity Center, a non-profit based in West Point that is serves 15 counties and is part of the North Mississippi Center for Higher Educational advancement. The Educational Opportunity Center is funded by federal grants and helps 1,000 people each year find an educational program that matches their interests and financial realities. They hold empowerment workshops on topics such as financial literacy, to educate people about complex topics such as credit and help them transition into better lives. 


The free program is used by a wide variety of people -- all ages, all walks of life -- and has never turned anyone away, Cunningham said. 


Cunningham, who works with people who have GEDs, said that because everyone's success is different, she asks questions: What are their interests? Do you want to do something hands-on or online? What colleges are you interested in?  


"It's a self-motivation thing," she said. "Once they have their GED they see it (higher education) as a logical next step. I encourage it, but I don't push it because college isn't for everyone." 


The first thing she does with a new client who wants to pursue higher education, is to point out the price tag.  


"I go straight to the cost, then I compare it to a local college, especially EMCC," she said. "Nine out of 10 go to EMCC." 


Many who use the Educational Opportunity Center obtain their GED through community resources such as the Columbus Learning Center, which provides free GED courses, English as a second language classes and basic computer skills. The Educational Opportunity Center also offers free day and night GED classes in West Point, as well as adult tutoring services and free computer training. The Starkville School District offers adult education and GED preparation classes through its federally-funded Department of Family Centered Programs at the J.L. King Center; free child care is provided for adults attending Family Centered Programs classes. 


There are resources throughout the Golden Triangle aimed at helping people, Cunningham said, it's just a matter of making sure people knowing about them.




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