Community receives $73K for workforce training

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NATCHEZ — Miss-Lou economic development leaders received a $73,000 grant Tuesday to help assess workforce-training needs on both sides of the river.

The effort aims to help certify the skill levels of the community’s workers that will, in turn, help economic developers market the area to new prospective businesses.

The Delta Regional Authority awarded the grant Tuesday as part of $1.5 million in funding throughout the Mississippi River Delta region and other areas to transform workforce development in those communities. The funding doesn’t require any match from either community.

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The Miss-Lou Region Workforce Development grant will allow the communities to have a third party complete a comprehensive workforce evaluation of the current workforce needs, said Concordia Economic Development Director Heather Malone.

Malone, in partnership with Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ, applied for the grant funding as a region instead of as separate communities.

“As everyone knows, 15 to 20 years ago we lost several major employers over a small period of time and in that we lost the majority of our workforce, which created a large skills gap in our area,” Malone said. “This is going to allow us to have a baseline of what skill levels we currently have compared to what our need is right now.”

The goal of the entire two-year process is for Adams County and Concordia Parish to meet the criteria for becoming a Certified Work Ready Community through the American Council on Testing (ACT), the same company that prepares the pre-college test.

Malone said both communities would utilize the ACT WorkKeys program to provide a general assessment to the unemployed, underemployed and emerging workforce.

“These assessments will tell us what skills these groups currently have and what areas they need additional training,” Malone said. “We will work with our area employers, local technical/community college systems and other educational and workforce partners to improve the skill level of those individuals and connect the skilled employees with the right employers.”

Ruth Nichols, Alcorn State University’s associate vice president for community and educational partnerships, worked with Malone and Russ to prepare the grant and said she believes the funding will help employers and educators in the area for years to come.

“Not only will it allow us to do an evaluation of our current work force — the skill levels and quality of it,” Nichols said. “But it will also provide a projection of what seems to be coming in the next five to 10 years as far as demands of employers from our work force.”

In addition to having businesses assess their employees, Work Ready communities also have a certain number of unemployed, underemployed and high school or college students assessed through the test to get a representative sample of the population.

“That will provide us with some assessments that we can give potential employees to let companies know their skills levels and help match the requirements of the job that they’re seeking,” Nichols said. “What we want eventually from all this is to come out with a comprehensive workforce development system that we can use to help our communities.”

If the communities reach certain requirements through the program, Nichols said they could earn the Work Ready certification.

“That’s what all this is a precursor for — Natchez and Concordia Parish being certified as Work Ready communities,” Nichols said. “That’s such a great marketing tool for economic and community development.”

Russ said the designation would be a valuable one for the area.

“To our understanding, we would be the first county in the state to go through that and certify our workforce,” Russ said. “It says, first and foremost, that we understand the importance of having a qualified workforce in place and that the area leadership understands that workforce and workforce readiness is important to employers, and that’s a key selling point.”