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Stakeholders encouraged by economy, concerned with workforce

 

Mississippi Economic Council President and CEO Scott Waller speaks at Lion Hills Center about Mississippi's economic issues Tuesday. MEC holds tours around the state every year to discuss successes and concerns of business and community leaders.

Mississippi Economic Council President and CEO Scott Waller speaks at Lion Hills Center about Mississippi's economic issues Tuesday. MEC holds tours around the state every year to discuss successes and concerns of business and community leaders. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

Nearly three-fourths of attendees at a meeting of business and community leaders from the Columbus area Tuesday said the state economy is doing better now than it was five years ago. 

 

That number -- 74 percent -- is the highest Mississippi Economic Council CEO Scott Waller said he'd seen since MEC began its 69th annual tour of communities around the state. 

 

"There obviously is some optimism of what's happening with the economy, not only here in this area but across the state," Waller said. "...That is great news." 

 

The MEC's "road show," as Waller called it, travels throughout the state every year meeting with business owners, educators and other community leaders to discuss economic issues facing cities and the state at large. Columbus is the tour's 20th stop out of 24, Waller said. Between 120 and 130 stakeholders were polled at a Columbus Rotary meeting at Lion Hills Center about their opinions on various economic issues facing the state. 

 

Waller said he isn't surprised to see local optimism because of the area's ability to utilize its educational resources -- two major universities and East Mississippi Community College -- and its industrial megasites to its advantage. 

 

"The Golden Triangle is an area we point to all the time," Waller said. "It's an area that several years ago had that approach of, 'Let's do things differently. Let's play to our strengths. Let's find a way to be better than the competition using what we have right here.'" 

 

However, Waller and meeting attendees were not without their concerns -- namely, a well trained and productive workforce, which 56 percent of attendees chose as the primary factor that would drive success in the economy. 

 

That number is well in line with other communities in the state, Waller said.  

 

"A strong workforce will attract companies," he said. "It will give companies incentive to expand because they will have the certainty that they can get the employees that they will need in order to be successful." 

 

Only 2 percent of meeting attendees said the state's workforce right now is "very prepared" for the job market, with 77 percent calling it "somewhat prepared." In a separate question, 24 percent said the factor that will most harm the state's population growth is the inability to match job training with job need, while another 26 percent said it was the educational attainment level of citizens that would most hurt population growth. 

 

Waller's presentation included a video of educators and state leaders who pushed collaboration between school districts and local businesses, as well as school districts that focused on coding and other technical skills in addition to traditional academic courses.  

 

MEC, Waller said, has a scholarship program both for traditional academic scholars -- the Mississippi Scholars Program, which has graduated more than 40,000 students since it began nearly 15 years ago -- as well as the Tech Masters, which started in 2013 and specifically focuses on students who choose career technical pathways instead of traditional academics. That program has so far graduated more than 3,000 students, Waller said. 

 

Waller also talked briefly about transportation, which MEC has been focused on this year. Though the 1987 Highway Program made Mississippi's four-lane highway system one of the best in the country, Waller said, the state has to continue maintaining that. He said it will take an additional $375 million annually to "begin" to maintain the roads. 

 

He added states like Arkansas and Georgia, which have begun pouring more money into transportation systems, are already seeing economic benefits. 

 

"If we don't maintain (our) system, we're going to lose the ability to claim that as an advantage for our state," Waller said.

 

 

 

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