JACKSON--Mississippi has enjoyed greater prosperity in the 1990s than in any decade this century, so says the state's economist. But it still can't get off the bottom in per capita income.

In terms of growth, all the economic factors--employment, personal income, state tax revenues, and wages--have all been on a roll, declared Dr. Phil Pepper, who heads the University Research Center and serves as state economist.

Having said that, however, Pepper doesn't have good news about Mississippi's prospects for cracking the barrier of being the 50th state in per capita income. The state's seemingly immovable barrier to raising per capita income, is having too few workers and insufficient skills.

Recently Pepper gave a paper describing Mississippi's dilemma thusly: even if everyone in the state who wants a job got one and there was zero unemployment, we would still have the lowest per capita income in the nation.

"So, new jobs by themselves aren't the answer if we are trying to move out of last place," he declared.

Statistics show that there are fewer people in the workforce here than elsewhere. That's just one dimension of the problem, the economist says.

Actually, Pepper declares, Mississippians aren't under-paid for industrial jobs that they have. The catch, he says, is that Mississippi workers don't have the skills to attract higher paying jobs.

Pepper sees the basic cause for the state having a smaller pool of skilled workers is rooted in the long history of an educational system that either was unaware of, or incapable of meeting, the need for a more productive people.

As he points out, Mississippi actually had no commitment to a real statewide system of primary and secondary schools until the minimum foundation program was enacted in 1953-54. And it was not until 1982 that the state finally established public kindergartens statewide and mandated compulsory education. The state was last to do both.

A study by Dr. Barbara Logue of the state's Center for Policy Research and Planning, recently found that almost 420,000 Mississippians of prime working age did not work outside their households. Another 465,000 between ages 18 and 64 worked only part time, less than 35 hours a week.

A large number of these persons, of course, did not have a high school education. And many of them, she found, couldn't read a want ad or fill out a job application.

Remedial programs could at least rescue many within that group, Pepper says, but the prime target should be upgrading the capacity and skill level of the 1.3 million Mississippians who are in the workforce.

"We start with the quality of education and training at the primary and secondary level," he said. Some good education building blocks, starting in the 1980s and again with the sales tax increase for educational enhancement in 1993, and more recently the equity funding initiative, have been put into place.

However, Pepper believes, a major limitation on the effectiveness of the school system is the lack of parental support. This stems, he says, from the legacy which parents grew up with, making importance of education a lower priority. One way to improve support in the home, he said, would be for school counselors to involve parents as well as students.

Pepper views the need for a three-prong assault by the state in order to solve its problems of economic improvement. Recruitment of job-producung industry and business investments, he calls, the "first wave."

This phase actually began back in the "BAWI" (Balance Agriculture With Industry) days of the 1940s and has been carried forward today under the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development. Mississippi has "done as good a job as anyone in this regard," Pepper said, but that is "not enough."

His "second wave" is tackling the lack of skills in the workforce, the problem which we earlier discussed, together with providing the infrastructure which skill improvement requires, he said.

Comprehensive strategic economic planning on how the state can compete in both the national and international economic mainstream, is what Pepper calls the "third wave." At least some activity in this area now seems evident.

To his credit, Gov. Kirk Fordice recently appointed a long-term Strategic Planning Task Force made up of public and private leaders which was first mandated by the Legislature in 1989. It had remained dormant ever since a Ray Mabus-appointed task force went out of existence in 1991.

As its chairman will by Jimmy Heidel, executive director of the state department of Economic and Community Development. Its first meeting is slated in about a week.

Revival of the Strategic Planning Task Force, however, would not have happened if it were not for the persistent urging of Pete Walley, who heads the Bureau for Long Range Economic Planning of the University Research Center. For months Walley had pigeon-holed almost everyone he could talk to around state government to get the task force back in business.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics for 50 years.

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