Mississippi businesses ask for focus on worker training

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JACKSON, Miss. — Mississippi lawmakers and officials told business leaders Thursday that they’re hearing their concerns about needing more and better-educated workers, noting efforts to improve child care and produce more high school graduates.

The Mississippi Economic Council, the state’s chamber of commerce, made workforce development one of its main priorities in this year’s Legislature as it met Jackson for its annual day at the state capitol.

“We truly have to be focusing on making sure we’re giving our citizens the opportunity to really get the skills they need,” said Scott Waller, the council’s executive director.

The focus comes as unemployment remains low in Mississippi, making it harder for businesses to find workers easily.

Gov. Phil Bryant and officials in his administration touted efforts to expand and improve child care, saying it would help parents enter the workforce today, as well as lead to better-educated workers in the next generation. The state recently announced a $10.6 million grant that it intends to use to better train workers at child care centers and also help low-income families find education and workforce training programs.

“We work with the entire family,” Bryant said of the state Department of Human Services.

Bryant’s administration is also aiding some large businesses in setting up child care centers as a way to enable parents to enter the workforce, citing Milwaukee Tool in Greenwood as one example.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, both Republicans, lauded Mississippi’s improving performance on a nationwide test of reading and math skills, as well as the state’s improving high school graduation rate.

“That’s 3,000 kids who have a totally different outlook on life,” Reeves said of high school seniors who will graduate this year who wouldn’t have graduated when more students flunked out.

The council also wants students to get more information on how to make career choices earlier in school. Waller said he’d like to see more opportunities for students to take the ACT Work Keys assessment, which helps measure workplace skills. He also cited an initiative by Toyota Motor Corp. and the Create Foundation in eight northeast Mississippi school districts to provide career coaches to help high school sophomores explore possible workplace futures.

The council is also interested in further improvements to early childhood learning, but Waller said it doesn’t now have any particular policies it’s seeking.