Long before the phrase “workforce training” became a mantra of every candidate for statewide office, Joe Max Higgins was sounding the alarm about Mississippi’s shortage of skilled manufacturing workers.
Almost since his arrival as CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK 18 years ago, Higgins has lamented that many of the jobs created by the new industry coming to the area had to be imported, too.
Generally, when someone discovers a truth that eludes others for years, that person is considered a visionary. In this particular case, not much vision was required. The problem was plain to see: Local workers just weren’t prepared for the demands of the arriving new industries.
Because of that, Higgins has been a big advocate for — and at times an acerbic critic of — East Mississippi Community College’s workforce training program and was a powerful voice for the creation of EMCC’s Communiversity, a $42-million state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing training center, which opened two years ago.
It was also a big part of the reason Higgins applied for a spot on EMCC’s Board of Trustees in January 2019.
Critics may say that Higgins was too single-minded, that he focused too much of his attention on Communiversity and workforce training.
Higgins would argue that the majority of the board and EMCC leadership spent too little effort on the matter, which best explains Higgins’ decision to resign from the EMCC Board on Tuesday.
Higgins elaborated on his decision to leave the EMCC board during Tuesday’s appearance at the Columbus Rotary Club at Lion Hills Center.
“It can’t be fixed,” Higgins said. “Quite frankly, nobody’s working the high schools to get those kids pipelined (to the Communiversity). They’re just not.”
Higgins noted that there are 160 students enrolled at Communiversity, about 75 percent of its original goal, with an expectation that enrollment would increase beyond that in the years to come.
EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks did not address that criticism in his statement responding to Higgins’ resignation, but did note that COVID-19, which arrived in the area in significant numbers less than a year after classes at Communiversity started, has had a significant impact on Communiversity enrollment.
Coordination with high school vocational programs to attract students to community college workforce training programs is something Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoesmann noted as far back as 2018 when he served as Secretary of State. Hoesmann said there were “silos” of workforce training scattered across the state, but said there was nothing in place to coordinate those efforts.
Last year, in his role as lieutenant governor and leader of the state senate, Hosemann led the way for legislation that reconfigured the state workforce investment board with a workforce “czar” to oversee efforts to create a collaboration between those workforce training “silos.”
From Higgins’ view, at least, that’s had little effect, at least not at the Communiversity.
COVID and other factors may account for disappointing enrollment, but when you consider the $42 million investment comes to about a quarter-million dollars per student, the disappointment is understandable.
While we understand Higgins’ frustration, we regret his decision. EMCC — and more specifically Communiversity — is made weaker by his absence.
Higgins’ resignation comes at a time when the LINK is closing in on multiple new projects that altogether would produce about 550 jobs, ranging in pay from $42,000 to $75,00 per year.
How many of those jobs will be filled by local workers is the question.
We love importing new industry to our area, but we much prefer the workers at those factories be home-grown.
Higgins’ resignation from the EMCC Board makes us concerned about our ability to do that anytime soon.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.