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Scruggs, Vassallo Debate: How Can Mississippi Improve Its National Standing?

Dickie Scruggs: Our state ranks last in most metrics of economic prosperity.

Richard "Dickie" Scruggs
Richard “Dickie” Scruggs

One of the most important metrics–particularly to a business–is a state’s “labor force participation rate.” This is the percent of adults who work or who are actively looking for work. It’s a different and more revealing measure than “unemployment rate,” which is only the component who’re actively looking for a job.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mississippi ranks 49th in workforce participation. It reports that barely 50 percent of us work or are looking for it. In other words about half of our adult population is idle.

The reasons for our poor showing are varied and often contentious. So, instead of debating the “why” question, I am going to talk about a solution, a little-known and under-utilized Mississippi program that can actually get us off the bottom. I’m speaking of the vocational and technical programs—in addition to GED–provided at every one of our community colleges.

When I returned from prison (where I was a GED math teacher), I wanted to volunteer teach in a local GED program. In the process I learned that our community colleges provide not only GED instruction, but—of equal importance—they simultaneously provide vocational and technical skill training. As students are preparing for the GED, they are also learning a trade. The community colleges design their vocational programs in concert with area businesses, which often recommend or provide instructors.

This combination of GED and vocational training is generally called “workforce development.” There are 15 community colleges in Mississippi (most with multiple campuses), and approximately 15,000 students in these programs who were formerly under-educated and un-skilled. The average age is 28.

While it’s good that these students have shown the gumption to educate themselves out of poverty, the community colleges have the capacity—right now–to train twice as many. The classrooms, vocational labs and instructors are already in place. It would cost relatively little to ramp our training capacity even higher. In less than a year in most instances, an unemployable dropout can emerge with a GED and a marketable skill. What’s more, the community colleges have been very successful in placing their graduates in jobs.

Workforce development through the community college system has an added advantage of being relatively free of the political controversies that plague K-12 public education. It’s a program virtually everyone likes when they learn about it. Unfortunately, the programs suffer from lack of public awareness and funding. Community colleges receive only 10 percent of the per pupil expenditures allocated to K-12, which itself is inadequate.

Mississippi can make a significant move in its economic standing in a short time with more resources and awareness of the work skills opportunities our community colleges provide. It is the most efficient dollar we can spend right now. More tax breaks will not bring many industries to the state with the least educated and skilled workforce.

Steve Vassallo: Taking a much different approach to this question, I am looking at it through the eyes of a conservative and a realist.

Steve Vassallo
Steve Vassallo

Although I basically agree with Dickie’s point this week, I feel as though he missed seeing the forest for the trees. Here’s why….

Currently in K-12 student achievement, Mississippi ranks 51st even behind the District of Columbia. That’s correct, 51st! Ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t get any worse than this. If we compared our state to third world countries, we might be competitive. It’s sad, real sad! Our educational system needs to be overhauled immediately. Throwing more money into the mix is not the answer. What is needed is an entirely different approach. Let’s ask our political leaders to do what’s most important and go to the leading states and bring their formulas back here and implement these! Continue talking around the problem is useless.

According to 24/7 Wall Street, Mississippi is the 10th most violent state! We’re fourth in murders per 100,000 and second in incarcerations. The total cost of annual violence is $4.2 billion. We have been skirting this issue for 50 years. What has happened to our state capital is pathetic. The reason retirees are choosing places like Oxford and elsewhere to retire is that they are seeking crime-free havens which Jackson is anything but! Addressing crime throughout the state has to be second in emphasis only to the aforementioned paragraph re Education. We need more and better trained police officers; we need to increase their pay and presence; and we need to say to our colleges and universities, graduate more students in the area of Criminal Justice. Crime is destroying Mississippi. When are we going to face the facts?

Last but not least, the economic condition of our state is horrific. The Bureau of Labor Statistics currently has our economic outlook at 32nd. We are fifth from the bottom in the creation of new jobs according to the 2014 Gallup Tracking statistics. Our hiring climate is among the worst grouping of states. Our state economic development office needs to begin focusing on the things that matter most in creating jobs. To begin with, we need to emulate what Texas and other leading states are doing. For example, we need a state sales tax earmarked exclusively for economic development. This would produce hundreds of millions of dollars annually for incentives; job training, technology and new business parks. The bandaid approach we’ve been using since the 1970s isn’t getting the job done.

Summing it all up, I haven’t addressed all the positives why people (like me) choose to live here. That discussion is for another day. What we need to do is to start focusing on the issues that matter most in 2016 and stop debating the Civil War, the state flag and descriptions of monuments. The Civil War ended 151 years ago. It’s over, let’s move on! We can honor our history and learn from it all at the same time. Until we do, the numbers and rankings above are only going to remain as they are. There’s a saying in Economic Development circles, that getting better is better than being good. Folks, we’re getting worse. It’s time to change this once and for all. We all can contribute to the solutions!

Dickie Scruggs is one of Oxford’s best-known former attorneys who now expresses his passion for adult education through the GED in a unique state-wide program he has developed, aptly called “Second Chance.” Scruggs is a well known Democrat and anchors the position of the Left in Point/No-Point. He can be reached at DickScruggs@gmail.com.

Steve Vassallo of Oxford is a frequent contributor to HottyToddy.com covering a wide range of subjects. An arch conservative, the popular columnist holds the political position of the Right in Point/No-Point. He can be reached at sovassallo@gmail.com.

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