TUPELO • Even though Jay Moon is president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, workforce issues go beyond manufacturing, he said.

Finding, training and keeping qualified workers in all fields and industries is the greatest challenge of today – and tomorrow.

“There are a lot of issues that affect workforce availability, including globalization and technology, not only across the nation but certainly the state and this region,” Moon said. “When we talk about the workforce, we have to talk about what’s going on in the work place. Manufacturing may be ground zero for technology and innovation, but it also impacts retail and the services industry. So when we talk about our communities and how vibrant they are, their GDP and how that makes it go in the community, there are a lot of challenges we face.”

Moon was one of the speakers Tuesday at the CREATE Foundation’s annual “State of the Region” meeting, whose theme was “Expanding our Workforce.”

Also speaking was Kristy Luse, who directs the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund through CREATE, who said some of the initiatives launched in recent years – from the “Imagine the Possibilities” Career Expo, funding of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) programs and Districts of Innovation – serve as a beacon for the rest of the state.

Both Moon and Luse were clear in their central message that communities must do whatever they can to help guide and prepare today’s students and workers for the jobs of the future.

“We’re going to have to up our game in doing what’s right,” Moon said. “We’ve got a lot of competition around the world, and certainly here in the United States. What we have to do is focus on some big things, while on the community level focus on some small things in order to be competitive in the future.”

What Moon is hearing from the manufacturing community carries over to other segments of the economy, and that is everyone is navigating through a “perfect storm.” The economy is strong, business is good, but finding workers is difficult.

“We’ve got situations where businesses are seeing 15 to 25 percent turnover rates,” he said. “We can’t have that, or it’s going to make companies question whether they do an expansion here or whether a new company comes here. Workforce is a commodity; the less of it there is, the more we pay for it. And when you don’t have it, you do something else. In that case it might be automation – robots –and that means that job is gone forever. So if we don’t step up and provide the skill sets so people can get their jobs, they’ll either not stay or not expand or automate – or do all three, and at the end of day we’ll have fewer jobs.

“We have competitors around the world we’ve never had before, and they’re doing what they need to do to advance their economy. So we need to do the same thing and bring that to focus here.”

• Also speaking at the meeting was famed trial attorney Dickie Scruggs, who won billions of dollars in litigations against the asbestos and tobacco industries. He also served time in federal prison in a judicial bribery scandal.

It was in prison where he found a sense of purpose again, teaching inmates high school equivalency courses. He founded 2nd Chance Mississippi, a nonprofit collaborative effort with the state’s community colleges that raises awareness for adult education and skills training. Some 600 people have been “graduated” from 2nd Chance, and Scruggs plans to expand the program as much as possible.

“We’ve touched the lives of these men and women with scholarships and grants, and all the contributions we receive goes into one of the educational programs,” he said. “My family pays all overhead and salaries in our foundation, and it’s just a labor of love for us.”

Scruggs said going to prison was an eye-opening experience, taking him from the heights to the depths of his life.

“Not having a sense of purpose really weighed on me,” he said. “When I started tutoring ... it truly was a second chance and gave me a sense of purpose that got me through that. That’s why I wanted to keep doing it when I got home. It gave me a reason to get up every day and do something.”

• To round out the meeting, the Jack Reed Sr. Community Leadership Award went to Nettie Davis, a Tupelo councilwoman.

The award is given to a person who demonstrates leadership and works to improve the quality of life in his or her community and region over an extended period of time.

“I love Tupelo – I call myself an ambassador because I brag about it all the time,” she said. “Every day when I get up, I think about what I can do to make it better.”

dennis.seid@journalinc.com Twitter: @dennisseid

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