TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor Emily DeRocco told a standing-room-only crowd at Shelton State Community College on Wednesday that the nation is now watching East Mississippi and West Alabama.

DeRocco, who works under Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, announced that East Mississippi and West Alabama has received a $15 million WIRED grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to improve the workforce in 36 counties in East Mississippi and West Alabama.

“This grant is intended to fully develop the latent potential of this region and to make it a competitive player in the 21st century global economy,” DeRocco said. “The WIRED program and team are here to help you achieve that goal.”

The Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, or WIRED, grant will focus on workforce development through the states’ community colleges.

Eight community colleges are identified as partners. In Mississippi, they are East Mississippi Community College, Meridian Community College, East Central Community College and Jones County Community College.

In Alabama, they are Bevill State Community College, Shelton State Community College, Wallace Community College at Selma and Alabama Southern Community College.

Mike McGrevey, president of The Montgomery Institute, will serve as chairman of Mississippi’s commission, which he said will be announced in the next couple of weeks. McGrevey said Gov. Haley Barbour will make the announcement.

Barbour was unable to attend Wednesday’s press conference.

McGrevey said the grant will be doled out in $5 million increments over a three-year period. He said the money will be invested in equipment and workforce development programs to support highly technical jobs in fields like the aerospace and automotive industries.

He said the synergy between East Mississippi and West Alabama will benefit both regions when corporations start looking for a location.

“What we’re trying to do is to make sure there is common language between us, and that when we have prospects that they are moving in unison,” he said. “We don’t want to have a briefing by Alabama and a briefing by Mississippi; we need to have one briefing that says here is the workforce training system that we bring to you to support your business.”

Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the state board of community and junior colleges, said this type of grant and workforce development could have gone a long way in recruiting an auto manufacturer like Kia to the region.

“One of the things Kia was worried about was labor supply,” Stonecypher said. “If we had had the chance to come together, we possibly could have made a better case. Instead of it going to Georgia, it could have been in or around the Meridian area.”

East Mississippi and West Alabama is one of 13 regions of the country to receive the $15 million grant. Other areas include the Denver Metro Region in Colorado, Western Michigan, North Central Indiana, Florida’s panhandle, the Piedmont Triad in North Carolina, Upstate New York, Coastal Maine, Northeast Pennsylvania, the Greater Kansas City areas of Kansas and Missouri, Central and Eastern Montana and the California Innovation Corridor, which includes Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland.

McGrevey said each of the 13 areas will focus on a different element of economic development. He said a press conference will be held in Mississippi in the near future to announce plans for the grant.

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