Locals voice opinions on economy at MEC Tour Tuesday

Published 1:11 am Wednesday, January 10, 2018


NATCHEZ — The votes are in, and one thing is certain — many Southwest Mississippi business leaders are nearly twice as pessimistic as leaders around the state about the state’s economy.

Using an electronic voting system, 125 local business owners and residents voiced their opinions on a range of issues as part of the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual tour of the state.

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The state’s chamber of commerce had already visited 12 other communities across Mississippi before coming to Natchez on Tuesday.

When asked if Mississippi’s economy is better off than five years ago, half of those who responded, voted “No.” Thirty percent voted “Yes,” and 14 percent voted “Not sure.”

The numbers differ with other parts of the state, MEC President and CEO Scott Waller said.

“Typically, 58 percent of voters in the state have voted ‘Yes,’” Waller said. “What these numbers tell me is that we have work to do in this part of the state.”

When it came to what is necessary to keep Mississippi’s economy moving in the right direction, those in attendance tended to agree with the data from other MEC meetings.

Fifty-eight percent of those who voted said having a skilled workforce is the No. 1 thing for improving and creating a robust economy in the state.

“The result matches almost every single meeting we have held so far,” Waller said.

How to provide a skilled workforce was one of the central themes of Tuesday’s meeting. To build the right workforce, Waller suggested Mississippi should take a David and Goliath approach to the issue.

The state should be like David in the Bible, who Waller said relied on his strength as an expert slingshot rather than competing against Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.

“It is time we started thinking differently about (the state’s economy),” Waller said. “As a state, we have to identify our strengths and find a way to play to our strengths to be successful.”

Fifty-two percent of those in attendance Tuesday said the workforce in Southwest Mississippi is “Not at all prepared,” and 47 percent said the workforce was “Somewhat prepared.”

Building a strong workforce is imperative to growing Mississippi’s economy, Waller said.

“Everywhere we go, that is the number one issue,” he said.

An educated workforce includes teaching employees the importance of practical skills, such as showing up to work on time, the value of teamwork and leadership and the ability to think critically, Waller said.

Forty-four percent of those who voted Tuesday said problem-solving, and decision-making skills were the single greatest skill most needed by employers in the community.

More important, Waller said experts agree that training begins when you are young and continues past high school and college.

“Education begins early and never ends,” Waller said.

Research suggests 65 percent of all jobs in Mississippi will require some post-secondary education, Waller said.

Waller said many in Mississippi are beginning to address the need to educate a skilled workforce, including efforts by Chandler Russ and Natchez Inc. to lead the state in making Adams County and Concordia Parish an ACT Work Ready region.

“Our Goliath in this area is the lack of a growing quality workforce,” Natchez Inc.’s Ruth Nichols said during the presentation.

The Work Ready program gives the region a way to match local jobs with the skill levels that are needed, she said.

“When the workforce improves, everything improves,” she said.

Others issues discussed Tuesday include the importance of having a healthy workforce and the importance of having a strong transportation infrastructure in the state.

Ninety-two percent of those who voted Tuesday supported spending more money to address Mississippi’s need to improve transportation infrastructure.

Ninety-nine percent of those in attendance said a healthy workforce is very important or somewhat important to their business or organization.

Data from Tuesday’s lunch and other meetings across the state will be compiled and used by MEC to develop an agenda to share with state legislators.

Waller said the tour across the state allows MEC to get input on things that matter most.

“We have to be in this together on a community level and a state level,” Waller said.


Editor’s note: The story published in Wednesday’s edition misattributed a quote from one of the speakers. Natchez Inc.’s Ruth Nichols said, “Our Goliath in this area is the lack of a growing quality workforce.” The story above is corrected. We regret the error and are glad to set the record straight.