n Mississippi, where the active workforce stands at over 1.2 million, state and local officials concentrate on building a reliable professional pathway to connect its workers to fast-growing industries in need of skilled talent. As the nation recovers from pandemic-related loss and help wanted signs continue to occupy storefront windows and billboards on local highways, the need for help doesn’t go unnoticed.
The state’s leading industries include advanced manufacturing, aerospace and defense, food and beverage, automotive, distribution and logistics, forestry, energy and chemicals. These sectors depend on a copious pipeline of skilled talent, especially as new companies move in to set up operations. Though as quickly as days pass by, unabating innovations sweep through these industries, often throwing a wrench at fresh-faced talent entering the workforce. In other words, companies hold a pivotal role in providing insight to immerging needs for upskilling new and existing employees. Collaboration from industry partners to state and local institutions and organizations is key to the longevity of a profitable business ecosystem.
Mississippi’s Office of Workforce Development, now rebranded as Accelerate Mississippi, came into existence in April 2021. Before Accelerate, the state did not have an organization solely focused on workforce development strategies.
For Ryan Miller, executive director of Accelerate Mississippi, creating a plan catering to individual sector and workforce needs had to be organized to serve the community equally. Accelerate’s team worked to develop its “ecosystem approach,” separating the state into eight different micro regions, headed by ecosystem coordinators to work with industry partners and community colleges to advertise training program opportunities.
“We’ve invested some workforce funding into expanding the availability of training,” says Miller. “The other thing we had to do, besides creating more programmatic availability, was to try to do a better job at letting Mississippians know about the opportunity to pursue these careers. So, we had to get geographically organized to do that.”
Mississippi focuses its resources on providing opportunity to its residents through training programs that lead to better jobs. Through Mississippi’s workforce and advanced training opportunities over 20,000 workers have gained training and $50 million has been invested by the state toward job creation and training between 2016 and 2026.
Perfecting the Talent Pipeline
In September 2022, The U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded two grants to the Magnolia State to build out workforce training centers. The intended goal of each grant is to create economic opportunity, strengthen the regional economy, create high-paying jobs and support private capital investment throughout the state.
The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) received $5.8 million through the American Rescue Plan’s Indigenous Communities Program to build their Advanced Workforce Training Center. MBCI is the only federally recognized tribe in the state, with over 11,000 members spanning 34,000 acres in 10 counties. The new 50,000-sq.-ft. center will be located 75 miles northeast of Jackson, Mississippi, in the Pearl River community.
“We have developed a long-term strategy to strengthen the Choctaw workforce, which is essential to successful economic development,” said Economic Development Director John Hendrix in a press release. “This new facility will enable us to provide advanced skills training, including vocational skills such as electrical, HVAC, and industrial maintenance. We will also offer training in computer and digital skills, healthcare, and management. The Center will also support Choctaw entrepreneurs with a small business development center with a maker space and incubator.”
Panola County landed $4 million in EDA grant funding to transform a vacant outlet mall in Batesville into a workforce training center to service North Mississippi. The Concourse came to fruition after years of planning from leadership in Panola County, North Delta Planning and Development District and Northwest Community College. The center is expected to retain 350 jobs and create $11 million in private investment.
“The Concourse is an example of a community coming together and recognizing there’s a need and coming up with really creative solutions as to how to meet that need,” says Miller. “You’ve got local economic developers, the City Council, the County Board of Supervisors, Northwest Community College and industry who have largely put their heads together and said this is desperately needed if we’re going to have a viable and sustainable workforce.”
According to Joe Azar, director of economic development in Panola County, before the announcement of the EDA’s investment, the county was able to acquire the outlet mall after it went into bankruptcy for $2.5 million, which was then matched by $2.5 million in city funds and $5 million from the state to renovate the space. “The EDA then put some finishing touches to it,” he says. “They came up with $4 million that we’re using now and we still have $2 million in state funds in the bank, so we’re just excited.
The 160,000-sq.-ft. Concourse is open for diesel mechanic training and electrical skills training programs, while it’s currently in its second of three phases of construction, expected to be fully operational by 2026. As the center wraps up construction, training programs offered will be based on sector needs faced by the northern part of the state.
Northwest Community College will move relevant programs from their main campus to the Concourse to make courses and training accessible to a larger population density. The center will additionally offer an entrepreneurial program and incubator for residents looking to create and build out their business in Mississippi.