Meridian educators, business leaders brainstorm workforce development

Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star

From left: Meridian Community College President Tom Huebner, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Meridian Public School District Superintendent Amy Carter and Lauderdale County School District Superintendent John Mark Cain served as panelists to discuss education and workforce development Wednesday.

When voters elected Delbert Hosemann as secretary of state for Mississippi 12 years ago, Hosemann promised to rewrite business laws and reform the office to the digital age.

Now, his office has won acclaim for being "the most automated secretary of state in the country," reducing filing fees and transferring documentation online. With that change, Hosemann focused on the pool of resources at his disposal, the contact information for thousands of businesses across the state, and created a survey. 

"An educated workforce is the most important for business in Lauderdale County," Hosemann said, reading the results. "And it's the same across the state."

A Wednesday community forum at Meridian Community College of educators and business leaders highlighted the needs of businesses and ways local schools could address the need for a more qualified workforce.

Tom Huebner, the president of Meridian Community College; Amy Carter, the superintendent for Meridian Public School District; John Mark Cain, the superintendent of Lauderdale County School District; and Terry Dale Cruse, the director of the Mississippi State University-Meridian; all served as panelists for a group of business leaders and government officials. 

Hosemann highlighted the statewide unemployment rate of 4 percent but expressed concerns about the low number of businesses connecting with students in high school.

"He or she is out in Lauderdale County or Meridian High – that is where your next employee is," Hosemann said. "We're behind when we ask students about their career after graduation... That's why we're here today. We have to connect. It's way, way out of balance to not have our businesses connected to our education."

One focus of Hosemann and panelists was training high school graduates to have "soft skills," such as integrity, timeliness or communication skills. Hosemann's surveys suggested that 75 percent of businesses valued that skill the most of high school graduates, more than technical skills. 

Cain said he saw this in his own home, with a daughter in eighth grade, preparing for a mock interview. She felt nervous, he said, and worried about how she could choose a career path that suited her.

"And I told her, 'It sounds to me like you're preparing for whatever job comes your way,' " Cain said. 

From a business perspective, Bill Hannah, the CEO and president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, partnerships played a key role in "selling the community."

"I work for every one of you and our job here is to sell what this community has," Hannah said. "Workforce (development) is just a huge challenge to us all... I think the only way to attack it and be successful at it is through forums like these."

One way Carter suggested businesses help students: by participating in career fairs and letting students shadow employees.

"Continue to be a part of those opportunities – it's great when a student can see a professional in their setting," Carter said. "What we could do a better job at is sharing those interests and expand opportunities for our students."

Cain emphasized how students and businesses building these relationships lead to qualified workers and job opportunities.

"Ninety percent of your workforce is coming out of high school in the state of Mississippi," Cain said. "It's our job to continue to provide those pathways and opportunities." 

Rob Smith, the director of Ross Collins Career and Technical Center, responded to a question about the stigma of technical degrees versus four-year degrees.

"That stigma is changing," Smith said. "Seven students in our automation (courses) are certified ASE mechanics... they're graduating from MCC before they graduate from high school. We're leading the state in dual-credit programs with MCC."

Carter said she hoped the conversations on Wednesday would open up new opportunities for students.

"This has been such a wonderful experience because it's opened necessary dialogue between the education and business communities regarding how to better prepare high school students for the workforce," Carter said. "If we have a student who wants to be a business owner, why not let them shadow a local business owner so they can see what goes into the day-to-day?"

As for the soft skills that come with an ethical workforce, one audience member suggested strengthening the connections between children and adults.

Thomas Parker, with the mentoring organization Tomorrow's Fathers, pointed out law enforcement officers in the room who had served as DARE officers during his young years.

"When I see you on the street, I automatically have a relationship with you – for no reason other than that," Parker said. "(DARE) wasn't just about drugs. It was about having an adult hold me accountable."

Parker, through his organization, said he worked to expose children to things inside and outside the state, including job opportunities. He described how children, on their way to Six Flags, stopped at a mall and played on an escalator and other people wanted the children to stop playing.

"But answer me this, is there an escalator in Meridian?" Parker said. "They were going to Six Flags. They could ride any ride that they wanted. But they had never seen an escalator. And that is why we have to expose them."

Following the meeting, Parker said this related to workforce development because his organization wanted to show children the different career opportunities available to them. 

"The goal is to expose our children to everything this city and state has to offer," Parker said. "You can only do what you know." 

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