Scott Waller, interim CEO and president of the Mississippi Economic Council, speaks to Starkville Rotarians Monday at The Mill at MSU. Waller addressed the need for workforce development to help improve Mississippi's economy. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 7, 2017 11:15:01 AM
Scott Waller said Mississippi, in order to meet its potential, has to think outside the box in terms of economic development.
Waller, the interim president and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council, said the state needs to focus on workforce development in order to continue to attract new businesses and industry. But he didn't just make the statement in a vacuum.
During Monday's Starkville Rotary Club meeting, which the MEC hosted at the Mill at Mississippi State University conference center on Russell Street, Waller periodically asked the audience to respond to questions with clickers at their tables. At one point, he asked what the audience felt was the most important thing for bettering Mississippi's economic.
Most respondents by far -- 58 percent -- said a skilled workforce is the most needed for the state to have to improve its economy. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said improving the state's image, and less than 10 percent each responded keeping taxes low, improving transportation infrastructure or don't know/other.
Waller said he's seen responses like that of the Starkville Rotary Club's play out across the state, and add the state needs to bolster its workforce education efforts. Earlier this year, he said, he met with business leaders across the state and asked what the state's primary need is, and they said Mississippi needs a better, more educated workforce.
"Today alone, there are over 40,000 unfilled jobs in the state of Mississippi," Waller said. "If we don't work on having a skilled workforce, we definitely are going to miss out on those opportunities, particularly when it comes to population growth."
Another question, where Waller asked the audience what the primary factor hindering growth in Mississippi is, drew a more mixed response.
Twenty-four percent of respondents said education, while 22 percent said a lack of attractions and amenities for young people. Nineteen percent said inability to match training to job needs and the overall state economic, each, and 16 percent said Mississippi's image.
Waller said the vote was one of the most evenly-split ones he's seen, and spoke to the complexity of finding ways to bolster growth in Mississippi.
"So that tells you there are so many different things that are happening that's causing this," he said. "We have to focus on them all -- we really do. But I think what we're learning is workforce development is probably at the top of the list as it would stand."
Working with partners
During a brief panel discussion with Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Scott Maynard and Tracey Braham, with MSU's Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness, Waller asked what's happening locally to bolster workforce development.
Maynard said the Partnership is seeking opportunities to partner with local organizations such as the Golden Triangle Development LINK, or local schools to find opportunities to strengthen the workforce for the future. There's a recognition of the need for educational and work opportunities at every level in Oktibbeha County, Maynard said, and there's work being done to address it. He added that he's looking forward to expanding the Partnership's incubator space to help get new businesses off the ground.
Still, he said, there are challenges.
"We've got a brand new company here, Insitu, that just came in," he said. "One of the areas they're struggling in is attracting highly-qualified, experienced professionals to come back to this area to work in a really specialized field. So in a partnership with us, the university (MSU) and other universities around the region (they're) trying to identify qualified applicants to come back in and fill these needed positions, which then helps our economy to grow in our local area, which helps me in my position."
Insitu is a Boeing subsidiary located in MSU's Thad Cochran Research and Economic Development Park. The Washington-based company designs unmanned aircraft systems and supporting software for military and commercial use.
During a final question, to close the meeting, Waller asked what audience members what they felt was the most important aspect to make a positive impact in the community. Forty-four percent chose improving schools, which was the highest of six choices. Improving the workforce, which drew 33 percent, was the only other choice to draw more than 10 percent.
Waller said strengthening the workforce is an educational challenge, from pre-kindergarten to lifelong learning.
"What it tells me when I see these results is at least I think we're focused on the right thing," he said. "We're focused on the thing that's going to make a difference and move the needle as we move forward."
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