Strong Workforce

By Lex Taylor

There is nothing more critical to Mississippi’s economy than the development of a strong workforce.

The first thing companies consider when determining whether to locate in Mississippi or expand an already existing location is, “What type of workforce is in the area?” Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

While skills and experience are vital when evaluating the current workforce, one of the keys for Mississippi to prosper is for us to focus on developing a strong workforce for the future.

One of the most recognized ways for a community to show they are serious about workforce development is to participate in the ACT Work Ready Community program.

The Mississippi Delta has been a leader focusing on the importance of developing Certified Work Ready Communities in its region. A dozen counties in the Mississippi Delta have already obtained work ready certification, and five more counties are working toward becoming certified.

While there are a variety of things that go into the certification process, at the core is the number of people within a county that has earned a National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC). Under this program, a person’s skill level is determined through an assessment called ACT WorkKeys. Once someone completes the assessment, that person is assigned a work readiness level of bronze, silver, gold, or platinum.

The work readiness process looks at the number of NCRC holders in three areas:

• The emerging workforce—high school and college students

• The current workforce—those now working in the private or public sectors

• The transitioning work-force—those who are unemployed, taking part in adult education, or looking to get back into the job market

This assessment determines a person’s basic work skills in three areas—applied math, graphic literacy and workplace documents. Simply put, employers can use this assessment to determine a potential employee’s current skills, as well as the employee’s ability to learn the specific skills required for the jobs within their company.

More and more businesses throughout Mississippi now use this assessment. Many will not even consider someone for employment unless they have scored at the silver level or above.

Two of the larger projects that have come to Mississippi over the past few years—the Yokohama Tire plant in West Point and the soon-to-open Continental Tire facility in Clinton—required a silver level certification before allowing someone to apply. This shows the value this assessment brings to economic development.

Local community leaders should be commended for the work they are doing to show employers the type of workforce that exists in their area.

On the statewide level, the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) has been working with state leaders and education officials to determine ways to assist in this process. The legislature recently approved funding of $1 million, of which a portion can be used for high school students to take the ACT WorkKeys assessment.

In early September, the State Board of Education placed the priority of this funding on the WorkKeys assessment. Under the Department of Education’s plan, the first two areas for spending will be:

• Districts are first to use the funds to offer the ACT WorkKeys exam to all career and technical education (CTE) program completers from the prior school year.

• Then, districts may offer other students the opportunity to take ACT WorkKeys.

This is a big step forward, as the state leaders understand not only the importance of career and technical education, but now see the value in determining our students’ work readiness.

As the state Chamber of Commerce, MEC has focused on ways to better prepare our students for success in four-year college programs, and in the career and technical fields.

MEC’s Endeavor report shows that for Mississippi’s economy to grow we must prepare our students in both areas. We are doing this through our Mississippi Scholars and Mississippi Scholars Tech Master programs. Over the past fifteen years, more than 50,000 students have been impacted by these programs and were better prepared when beginning their post-secondary education.

Today, with the increased focus on work readiness, Mississippi has the chance to set ourselves apart by working together to create work-ready communities all across the state. DBJ

Lex Taylor is Chairman and CEO of the Taylor Group of Companies and serves as Chair of the Mississippi Economic Council—the State Chamber of Commerce.