Mississippi’s strong, closely-knit communities have a long history of overcoming challenges by working together. Removing the negative attitude toward skill-based trades for our children by replacing myth with fact is the next challenge that lies ahead.

Too often, the mention of skill-based trades brings to mind dirty, dangerous, dead-end jobs with no benefits and no future, but that image could not lie more distant from the truth. Computers and automation dominate today’s business processes, and bright minds are needed to operate and maintain complex machines. Cognitive ability, armed with in-depth instruction and practical training, is one of today’s most reliable pathways to reliable employment and financial success.

What are some of these jobs? Industrial maintenance technicians, mechatronics, precision manufacturing and systems analysts to name a few. And some do require four-year degrees, like engineers and computer scientists.

Businesses not just in Mississippi but across the country are hungry for skilled workers. A skilled workforce is the most important issue impacting site location decisions for employers with some sources reporting 6 million of these jobs are demanded nationally. With Northeast Mississippi’s proud record, I know we can outcompete other areas of the country. How? Simply by spreading the word in our communities and by encouraging more people to enter targeted pathways towards success.

Lately in social settings, I’ve been asking friends and colleagues if they’d support their children entering technical training programs. Responses are mixed, but commonly, parents turn their noses up at the idea of their kids being trained in a skilled trade instead of going to a four-year college. They’ve asked, “Why would I want that for my child?” I answer, “Because these jobs often pay twice the private sector average early on with opportunities to climb into six figures and management.” I’ve seen these one-on-one conversations begin to change attitudes and leave parents wanting to know more.

There’s much already happening in the local area, so we’re already ahead of the curve. The Mississippi Partnership in our region has identified manufacturing, information technology, logistics and health care as priority sectors for growth and opportunity. The CREATE Foundation has a comprehensive plan to link education to careers. Some area high schools are engaged in big ways to meet local employer needs and our community colleges, ICC and NEMCC, have model programs for public-private partnerships in workforce training.

So, with this great progress, what else needs to be done? We simply need these existing training pathways, which lead to high-quality jobs, to be filled with more people. By identifying the targeted training programs, this is a highly measurable activity. We know we need greater numbers to begin training in skills, so our collective mission is to push more in this direction. The winners will be the businesses, the individuals and their families, and our communities. With clear and measurable goals in mind, this topic simply needs to become more of a Main Street and community conversation.

For more than a generation, we’ve done a good job convincing our high schoolers a four-year college degree is the path to success. Now, while college is required for many professions, about two-thirds of the jobs of today and tomorrow require brief technical training. Northeast Mississippi, let’s get together and talk more about demand-driven education for jobs that actually exist.

Amy Tate is Director of Government Relations for TVA and Chairman of The Skills Foundation of Mississippi, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the supply of skilled labor in Mississippi. Readers can contact her at info@skillsfoundationms.com

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