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Trainable workforce needed for future jobs

Frankie Jackson from Scott’s Welding, above, welds together pieces of aluminum in the company’s shop on D'Evereux Drive in Natchez.

NATCHEZ — The Miss-Lou doesn’t have enough machinists.

It’s short on heavy equipment operators, diesel mechanics and welders, too.

And with an announced approximate 700 jobs coming to the area in the next several years, that could be a problem.

The Miss-Lou isn’t alone in this dilemma, however.

“I don’t know that Natchez is different from any location in that regard,” said Peggy Ballard, director of the Natchez WIN Job Center. “I think it is something everybody is struggling with.”

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said the problem of a lack of skilled workforce is one that is nationwide.

“It is an issue across the board, and so when you put it in that light, I guess it doesn’t put us at a competitive disadvantage,” Russ said.

“Machinists, industrial electricians, people like that, not a lot of them are out there right now, so it is not something that is hurting southwest Mississippi, because it is hard to find them, whether a company locates in Southwest Mississippi or Houston.”

The question then becomes, Russ said, not is the workforce skilled but is it trainable?

“We have got a region at nearly 10 percent unemployment, and we have a lot of people who are employed but are underemployed. This includes the Louisiana side of the river as well. That is sufficient to meet the future demands of industry.”

A worker who is underemployed is someone who has a job but whose skills are not being used to their best potential.

But while a lack of a skilled workforce hasn’t deterred companies from committing to the area, it now forces the issue — where will the available workforce get the skills it needs?

Von Drehle, which recently purchased the former Mississippi River Pulp property, will need at least 100 employees.

Chemical manufacturer Elevance has committed to adding 165 permanent jobs. Alternative fuel producer KiOR has projected the creation of 320 permanent jobs and 400 construction jobs, while Virdia — formerly HCL Cleantech — has announced long-term plans to open a 200-job plant in Natchez that will process pine products into sugars that can be used to make fuel.

Magnolia Frac Sand and Fores Frac Sand — partner companies that will produce materials used in the process of hydraulic fracking — will need a combined 60 employees.

All of those companies will employ technology unfamiliar to the area or more advanced than the current experienced workforce is used to. For example, former MRP workers hired on at von Drehle, which will produce similar products, might be familiar with some of the company’s process, but not all of it. Even those with years of experience In Natchez’s shuttered industries will need new training.

“Some of the processes that the new plants have coming in will have a similarity to what we have had before, but some of those processes will be somewhat different to what we have had here in the past,” Ballard said. “It will relate, but there will be some new training that will be needed.”

And that’s where the Miss-Lou actually has a competitive edge, Russ said.

“Where we shine is the ability for the WIN Job Center and the community college system to tailor-make training programs specifically for those industries coming in,” Russ said. “It is one of our strongest selling points.”

Every announced project —and those up and running, such as Enersteel — has a significant training piece associated with it that will filter through both the WIN Job Center and Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Russ said.

“At some point, when Elevance starts ramping up their hiring, there will be a curriculum that those employees will be trained under that has been agreed upon and designed by and in conjunction with Co-Lin and the company,” he said.

Co-Lin President Ronnie Nettles said the college has a division tasked specifically with working with industry to provide not only technical training but safety and soft job skills as well.

In the past, the Natchez branch of Co-Lin had an extensive training program with International Paper, he said.

“This is something that is throughout the community college system, and we work very carefully and closely with other colleges to see what they are doing,” Nettles said. “KiOR has worked with the group at East Mississippi Community College for their Columbus location, and we are learning from them and what they have done there. Usually this training program development is done well before the company opens.”

While potential employees wait for companies to break ground and start hiring, Ballard said they can take some proactive steps to get a leg up on the hiring process.

“One of the things that we find people are not prepared for is just really doing a job search,” she said. “Everything is so very competitive right now, and if they could even work on having a good resume prepared, being able to fill out and complete a job application, work on their interviewing skills, those would be very important.”

And in addition to getting their paperwork in order, those hoping to get hired on can go ahead and get a head start on actual training.

“Enersteel needs welders, and any kind of welding training someone can get behind them would be excellent,” Ballard said. “For all of these companies that are coming in, any kind of industrial training, it doesn’t hurt to have.”

Those who want to find out more about job searches and training may visit the WIN Job Center, which is located at 107 Col. Pitchford Parkway, Ballard said.