TUPELO • One of Gov. Phil Bryant’s favorite phrases is, “Mississippi wins with people,” when referring to the state’s economic development efforts.
With state unemployment near a record low, it seems the state is doing what it needs to do when it comes to landing the businesses and industries and growing the ranks of tax-paying workers.
“Winning with people” suggests that companies are finding the workers they need and want. And by many regards, they are.
But at separate but related career and workforce development summits last week in Tupelo via the CREATE Foundation, local and regional economic development groups and the Appalachian Regional Commission, it was clear that companies are having more difficulty finding the workers they need. The issue has been bubbling beneath the surface for years, and ironically has only worsened as the overall economy has improved.
The problem of finding enough qualified workers has been exacerbated by a deterioration in what are called soft skills such as strong work ethic, leadership skills, communication skills, problem-solving, time management and teamwork.
And people are failing drug screening tests that either prevent them from getting a job or from keeping a job due in part to growing opioid abuse.
These are the biggest challenges employers face in a low unemployment environment where essentially everyone who wants a job has one. Combined with the fact that in Mississippi only a little more than half of eligible workers are actively looking for a job, the issue has many employers scrambling to find solutions.
Toyota Motor Corp. opened its assembly plant in Blue Springs in 2011, and by nearly every measure, the facility has been as well-run as any. It was the fastest of any North American Toyota plant to build 500,000 vehicles and nearly matched a similar benchmark with its 1 millionth vehicle late last year. It has won a coveted J.D. Power award for initial quality and numerous other accolades.
Toyota Mississippi President Sean Suggs, who’s worked for the global automaker for 20 years, is quick to credit the team members, or employees, of the plant for its success. Still, finding enough qualified employees has been a challenge, he said.
“We believe we’ve got a really great company to work for, but if you look across the country, it’s really a challenge that’s not unique to Mississippi or the South,” Suggs said. “I had a trip to Japan a few months ago, and they’re struggling with some of the same things.”
Suggs said today’s workers, particularly the younger ones who are more mobile, have more choices and opportunities from which to choose.
“They have so many companies and so many things to pick from, and it’s increasingly hard to find talent that wants to stay with you for long term,” he said.
‘IT WILL DEFINE US’
David Rumbarger, president and CEO of the Community Development Foundation, said the problem of finding enough qualified employees is real. That would seem to be a stark confession from an economic developer who sells a community on having the available workforce to a prospect.
Rumbarger said Northeast Mississippi has been able to deliver in the past and can deliver in the future. It will just take continued and concerted efforts from economic developers, educators, and business leaders to work toward keeping the workforce ready.
The CDF has had great success during its seven-decade-old history in bringing big business to the region. Helping land Toyota to the area, along with some suppliers, has been one of its biggest accomplishments in recent years, but the pursuit of “more and better jobs” is never-ending. Rumbarger and other economic developers in the region know more qualified workers need to be pushed through the pipeline.
But it’s not only soft skills that workers lack, they also don’t have the skills needed to fill the jobs that are available.
For example, industrial maintenance jobs are in high-demand in not just Northeast Mississippi, but across the country and the pay can start around $20 an hour or more. But the supply of workers isn’t enough to keep pace with the need.
“Closing the skills gap is our biggest challenge,” Rumbarger said. “It is the thing that will define us over the next 10-15 years in this region.”
Suggs said jobs in factories must overcome a negative stigma.
“These jobs aren’t dirty, dark or dangerous,” he said. “But many people still mistakenly think they are.”
There’s no doubt that the workforce in Northeast Mississippi has answered the call over the years to fill employers’ rolls, Rumbarger said.
The region – the 16 counties comprising Northeast Mississippi – has enjoyed near-record low unemployment during the past four years, having recovered from the Great Recession.
Cooper Tire, General Atomics, Southern Motion, H.M. Richards, MTD, United Furniture, Ashley Furniture and so many more have expanded and added workers over the years.
With help from Itawamba Community College and Northeast Mississippi Community College, workforce training programs have helped narrow some of those skills and knowledge gaps.
But Rumbarger and other economic development officials are seeing that skills gaps are posing a problem. With older, more knowledgeable and more experienced workers leaving the workforce due to retirement and attrition, the number of workers filling the void isn’t enough.
Experts estimate that roughly 60 percent of jobs haven’t been invented for the Class of 2035. Many of those jobs also fall into the “middle-skills” area that don’t always need a college degree. But not enough students are encouraged to look into those other options. And if the workforce isn’t ready now, what will the employment picture look like down the road?
HOLDING US BACK
About 21 percent of the workforce in Northeast Mississippi is tied to manufacturing, which ranges from making cars to sofas to advanced aircraft carrier launching systems. The rest of the workforce is slotted into non-manufacturing jobs like retail, health care, food service and hospitality, government and education.
Lewis Whitfield, senior vice President of the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo which hosted the inaugural Summit on Career Education and High-Paying Jobs last week, said the low labor participation rate – the percentage of the population that was employed or looking for a job – in Mississippi is the main reason why the state has lagged behind the rest of the Southeast and the rest of the nation in economic growth since the end of the Great Recession.
Already saddled with a low population, having a low labor participation rate makes Mississippi a tougher place to grow a business, and in turn, the economy.
“It’s holding us back,” he said.
While low unemployment rates and big job announcements have made the headlines, it’s what is between the lines that people are missing, Whitfield said.
Mississippi’s labor participation rate is around 56 percent, the second-lowest in the nation. The U.S. labor participation rate for August was 62 percent.
“So when you hear we have a 4 percent unemployment rate, that’s great – but it only applies to that 56 percent that are actually working,” Whitfield said.
Citing research from a report by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research commissioned by Gov. Haley Barbour’s administration in 2012, Whitfield said five main factors were behind the state’s low labor participation rate:
• Higher non-metropolitan population. About 60 percent of the Mississippians don’t live near metropolitan areas, compared to 26 percent for neighboring states. People in metro areas are more likely to work or look for a job than those in a rural setting for a variety of reasons.
• Low levels of educational attainment. For example, the state’s high school graduation rate at 83 percent is about 1 percentage point below the national average. However, it also is the fourth-lowest in the Southeast. But the problem extends to community college and four-year universities.
“At every level of education, we graduate fewer people than our neighbors,” Whitfield said.
• Racial composition. Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans in the nation at 36 percent. In the prime working age group of 25-54, the workforce participation rate of the African-American males group is 72 percent – 15 percentage points less than white males. The state must study the causes for the discrepancy and look for ways to close that gap.
• Poor health status and higher rates of disability that further crimp the availability and marketability of a smaller labor pool.
• Higher ratio of individuals participating in government assistance programs.
“The bottom line is, we don’t have enough of our great people working,” Whitfield said.
NEXT WEEK: What some companies and schools are doing to help find qualified workers.