Amidst the familiar sights and sounds of the election year, something strange is brewing. There’s the usual yard signs, bumper stickers and candidate commercials; however, there’s an unusual addition. Mississippians will hear a foreign sound, perhaps most will even find it unrecognizable.

This strange sound, released from the mouths of most every candidate for Mississippi’s highest offices, is harmonious agreement on a key topic. Candidates vying for governor and lieutenant governor have insisted workforce development must become a top educational policy priority.

Despite their differences on other policies, this rare, unified message speaks to this critical need. Today’s economy and businesses require far more technical training and skilled expertise from workers compared to decades past.

Politicians are rightfully acknowledging our workforce must be prepared to keep up with rapid changes sparked by the data revolution. That’s a positive sign; however, the term “Workforce Development” has become an ambiguous cause. The blanket desire to “improve Mississippi’s workforce” begs an important question – how?

First, the specific outcomes desired must be identified and understood. More people must be trained in the areas demanded by employers. Common questions should be: What sectors give Mississippians the best chance at a high-paying job that actually exists? What specific skills do employers in these sectors need? Perhaps most importantly, where does one get trained for those high-demand, high-paying jobs?

Luckily, these questions have been answered by employers and workforce leaders across Mississippi. The five high-demand sectors are manufacturing, energy, healthcare, information technology, and transportation/distribution/logistics. Examples of in-demand skills include computer programming, diesel equipment technology and mechatronics. Conveniently, the training programs for these sectors already exist at our community colleges and universities.

How will more Mississippians know about these opportunities if no one tells them? In the age of information, more people must have access to resources which help guide education and career decision making. The resource that serves as Mississippi’s Virtual Guidance Counselor is found online at GetontheGridMS.com, where individuals can learn more about training programs for Mississippi’s high-demand careers.

Lastly, as Mississippi pushes more people into good careers for the benefit of individuals and the economy, measuring progress (or the lack thereof) is important. To meet demand, the number of students entering and completing these high-demand training programs must increase sharply above current training levels. After all, what gets measured gets done.

Mississippi’s workforce challenges are real and not unlike challenges faced across the country. Mississippi political candidates are aligned behind the concept of a better workforce, and a qualified workforce is the biggest barrier to economic growth today. The target must be to get more people trained with the specific skills demanded.

If Mississippi’s public and private sectors work jointly and effectively in a targeted manner, Mississippi can increase skills training growth at a faster rate than other states. Think about what that would do for businesses, the economy, those individuals earning higher incomes, their households and Mississippi’s communities.

Garrett McInnis is with The Skills Foundation of Mississippi, a 501©3 nonprofit organization working to increase Mississippi’s supply of skilled workforce. He can be reached at garrett@skillsfoundationms.com.

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