By the end of 2019, Lowndes County will have more $55 million in new, state-of-the art workforce training facilities.
The Lowndes County School District’s $11 million career tech center will begin classes in the fall semester while the $44 million Communiversity, under East Mississippi Community College’s workforce training umbrella, will open sometime next year at the Lowndes County Industrial Park.
On Thursday at the LCSD Career Tech Center on Lehmberg Road, small business owners and representatives from the LCSD and EMCC met to talk about how the broader community can use the new facilities to maximum effect, a meeting organized by Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
Hosemann has been traveling the state to urge communities to work together to build the educated workforce that today’s employers need.
“An educated workforce is the answer to just about every problem we have,” Hosemann said after the two-hour meeting, which featured a round-table discussion with Hosemann, educators and small business owners. “Right now, we have low unemployment and that’s great, but what we need is a high participation rate. We have about 1.1 million people working now. If we can get that number to 1.3 million, everything works. Health care works. The (state) budget works. Infrastructure, repairing our roads and bridges, works. Everything.
“All of that depends on building an educated workforce,” he added. “There isn’t a tractor in the Delta that doesn’t have a real complicated platform on it. If you can’t run a computer, you can’t run a tractor. It’s the same with everything.”
When the two facilities were proposed, much of the focus was on training for the jobs needed by big industry.
Missing from those early talks was how the facilities could help small businesses, observed Katie McCrary, whose family-owned business, McCrary Construction Services, employs about 35 workers.
To make sure the needs of small businesses were not neglected, McCrary organized a group of 17 area businesses to work with the LCSD. Her group has been meeting with LCSD Superintendent Lynn Wright to find ways for small business to be a part of what the career tech center has to offer.
McCrary was a part of Thursday’s round-table discussion.
“Our group employs close to 2,000 people,” she said. “We appreciate the large industries in our area, because a lot of us work with them. But we need employees, too.”
The need for job-ready employees at small businesses is no less critical than it is for large, high-tech industries, said Dale Nelson, owner of Triangle Insulation and Acoustic Inc. in Columbus.
“I’ve been in the construction business for 32 years,” Nelson said. “It used to be that when you needed workers, there were people looking for work everywhere. Now, you can’t find anybody. Contractors are poaching other contractors’ help to man their projects. It’s a common thing. That’s why we need to get the word out to the community to let them know how deep this really goes.”
Part of that effort, Nelson said, means changing the community’s perception of the new career tech facilities.
“Back in the day, there was shop class, and you went to shop class to get out of doing anything else,” Nelson said. “When I was in high school we had a perfectly good shop class, but we never touched a tool or a machine in there. We treated it like a study hall. I think that idea still persists. There are a lot of people in this community that see this as a big money pit. We need to address that. We need to get the word out.”
McCrary said that message needs to reach kids, too.
“We’ve got to make school trade classes cool again,” McCrary said. “I’m passionate about that. A lot of kids don’t know what they want to do. In working with some schools, I saw kids who were academically challenged and pegged as trouble-makers because they were never going to be able to sit down and perform in math and reading and English like the kids sitting next to them.
“But when you put that kid on a motor, he finds out he has the ability to make $50,000, $75,000 a year, just like that, when (he comes) out of these programs,” she added. “It changes his whole life.”
Hosemann said his mission is to make sure facilities like those in Lowndes County reach into every corner of the community, providing opportunities for students throughout the county, regardless of what school district they attend.
“I want to see these opportunities extend beyond the student population of the district,” Hosemann said. “If somebody is 10 miles away, come out here, talk to Lynn (Wright). Work with him. He’d love to have some of those students in the city school district out here. That’s a barrier that should not exist.”
Wright said the center was never intended to be the exclusive domain of the school district.
“We can work something out,” he said. “We’re open to holding night classes or anything else that would work. We want this to be something that serves the whole community.”
EMCC President Thomas Huebner agreed.
“Come out and see us, talk to us,” Huebner said. “Let us show you how we can use resources available for everyone. We need to be changing perceptions and working harder to integrate with businesses and the community. What are you needs? How can we help?”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]