July 16, 2014 10:28:49 AM
When Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins first announced plans for a $38 million "Communiversity" project a month ago, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
The facility will be an expanded version of the workforce training center at East Mississippi Community College's Mayhew campus and will be funded primarily by state and local taxes.
The 133,690-square-foot, three-story structure will house 15 manufacturing, technology and engineering educational bays -- triple the amount currently offered at EMCC -- on a 12-acre site near the Golden Triangle Regional Airport previously donated to the school. It will also contain dining services, two computer workstations, eight classrooms and resource and seminar space, while providing administrative offices and an additional 14,000 square feet for lease. It will also include an exhibition area, where local industry can display its products.
EMCC Vice President for Workforce Training Raj Shaunak says the facility is a direct response to the challenges the Golden Triangle faces in meeting the demands of existing industry as well as the new industry the area hopes to attract.
"Right now, we need to train 350 skilled manufacturing workers just to meet the demand in our area, and that's not including Yokohama when it begins operations," Shaunak noted. "In our current facility, we are holding classes from 8 in the morning until 9 at night and we're able to produce only 150 of those workers. Communiversity gives us the opportunity to meet those demands, which are only going to increase. It's vital."
If all goes according to plan, the new facility will open in the fall of 2017.
But even a large, state-of-the-art facility supplied with the latest tools, technology and equipment will not ensure success.
To achieve that, Shaunak said, we have to change how we think about what it means to be a manufacturing worker.
Up until recent years, the requirements for most manufacturing jobs were few -- an ability to perform a few simple physical tasks along with an ability to cope with the tedious, monotony of working on an assembly line eight ours a day. The image that emerged was that manufacturing work was what Shaunak calls "the four Ds -- dirty, dumb, disappearing, dangerous." The work environment was dirty. The workers were dumb, the jobs were disappearing as more manufacturing jobs left the U.S., and dangerous, again a product of the work environment.
Today's modern manufacturing bears no resemblance to those descriptions. The industries that have arrived in our area over the past decade are high-tech, clean, efficient operations. The workers there are not merely providers of manual labor, but highly-skilled, well-paid technicians, expert in very specific areas.
Changing those perceptions must start as early as middle school, Shaunak said.
He said it used to be that when school counselors assessed a student's progress, some children were judged "not college material" and diverted to vocational programs. There was a stigma attached to that, of course. Not being "college material" implied that the student would be condemned to some low-paying menial factory job -- a "four D" life.
Today's manufacturing jobs provide a real future and access to a middle class lifestyle that previously had been available primarily to college graduates.
Over the next two years, Shaunak said EMCC will aggressively work with our high schools to paint a more accurate picture of the opportunities today's manufacturing industry provides. He calls it a 2+2+2 concept that would introduce high school juniors and seniors to the basics in manufacturing, followed by two years of workforce training at EMCC and, for those who want to pursue higher level positions, two years at Mississippi State University.
The success of the Communiversity concept relies not only on facilities that can accommodate the needs of employers but a fundamental change of how we thinking about those jobs.