Mississippi Economic Council hosted a conference “A New Day, A New Opportunity for Mississippi” that addressed key initiatives to spur opportunities for economic growth on Friday at Lion Hills Center.
Sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi, small groups of local leaders discussed vital issues facing communities such as creating a work-ready workforce, enhancing economic development as well as retaining and attracting talent to the Magnolia State.
MEC is building on the information gathered in its Endeavor report, a study that focused on Mississippi’s long-term growth and sustainability, to determine the best path forward to advance an economic environment conducive to today’s opportunities while preparing for future possibilities.
MEC’s tour will touch on many counties throughout the state between July and September.
During one round-table discussion, Lowndes County Supervisors’ President Trip Hairston talked extensively about the need for skilled labor.
Praising vocational training offered at East Mississippi Community College, Hairston said, “I don’t think education all has to come from universities. I think it certainly can come from individuals (skilled trades workers). In our area, we have a benefit of having EMCC right here that focuses on those types of things. I think promoting those really would help us out in those jobs that we’re talking about.”
EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks said though up to 25 percent of today’s jobs require a bachelor’s degree, the education system creates a cycle that forces people to search for opportunities in places that value a college degree.
“I think we’re all our own worst enemy for forcing everybody to get a bachelor’s degree and since only 25 percent of the job market requires it, then you can’t stay here to work,” he said. “They may not want to leave Mississippi, so they got to go to Nashville. They got to go to Houston because we’ve forced them down that funnel. If that’s the credential they have, then there’s not enough jobs in Mississippi with that credential to stay or come back.”
Facilitating the discussion was Donna Ritchey, chief strategy officer for GodwinGroup, a marketing communications firm based in Jackson. She said it is important to tout the benefits of what Mississippi has to offer, such as the state’s supercomputing octane and opportunity for skilled trades and technical jobs that don’t require advanced college degrees. She said other reasons companies are attracted to the state is because of people’s strong work ethic and commitment to community.
Ritchey spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a revolution in communications and technology that has changed the workplace. She said because workers can telecommute, they may choose to move away from crowded metropolitan cities — a move that may favor places which offer a better quality of living.
“Post pandemic, we’ve seen people leaving the larger cities,” she said. “There’s an opportunity there for us to (benefit from) that. I think that’s a strategy to be looking for.”
BancorpSouth Vice President for Commercial Lending Carey Edwards addressed “brain drain” — how human capital moves from Mississippi to big metropolitan cities in search of economic opportunities. He said it is important to incentivize people into staying in Mississippi.
“You need to incentivize them to not ever leave in the first place because once they’re gone, there’s a good chance you don’t ever get them back,” Edwards said. “They go off, they start a family, they meet a spouse that’s from that area, maybe that spouse doesn’t want to come back to small-town Mississippi, so I think a key part of it is to get them to stay, to never want to leave to begin with.”
Hairston addressed the changing nature of living in towns and cities and the unique experience through its restaurants, shops and recreational activities.
“Your brick and mortar big box stores and all that kind of stuff used to be just a quality of life thing, but that does not really mean anything for anybody nowadays because you can get whatever you want online,” he said. “These days, it’s the unique pie store, the downtown bookstore or maybe the craft brewery, recreation, river walks and those kinds of things which drive people out so they can do that sort of stuff.”
Alsobrooks said in order to attract people — particularly tech types — to the state, it is important to change people’s perception of Mississippi.
“Tempting these people is different,” he said. “They don’t look like your normal sport coat types — I think one perception that we’ve got to break of Mississippi is that we don’t like people who are different. We’ve got to break that.”
Ritchey shared her own experiences about serving companies across the nation and globe, however, she made the decision to stay true to her Mississippi roots by building a career at home. She said though policy makers sometimes focus too much on the negative, there are a lot of positive opportunities available to attract people.
“While imperative to address the negatives, I think as we look toward policy planning, we need to move beyond talking mostly about where we fall short. I think today we should probably also talk about how the glass is also half-full, and not always only define it as half-empty,” she said. “People don’t know what they don’t know — and if the narrative is only about what’s lacking, we miss the opportunity to engage, inspire and motivate people to stay, return or come to Mississippi to invest, work and live.”
Inspiration and vision are needed to build a better Magnolia State.
“People need inspiration, a broad vision and to work together if we are to advance positive change to improve economic and workforce opportunity and the overall quality of life across our state,” Ritchey said. “It’s not like pie — opportunity comes in many forms, with different definitions, but in some manner, it exists for everyone.”