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Opportunities abound in Natchez

Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc., confirmed last week what many people have believed for a while — the Miss-Lou has an employment problem.

The problem isn’t, however, the problem most people imagined.

For the past year that I lived in Natchez, I’ve heard many people, not only residents but also economic and community leaders, complain that the area does not have enough jobs to go around.

The shortage of jobs has been blamed for everything from an abundance of houses on the market and falling property values to all sorts of community ills, including drug abuse, domestic abuse and violent crimes.

The lack of jobs can be traced back to 2015 when oil prices dropped from $85.60 per barrel the previous year to $41.85 per barrel, effectively killing the local oil economy.

Since then, the community’s economy has shifted not only more toward tourism, but also more toward production, including jobs that require specialized skills, such as welding.

The community’s industrial recruitment efforts have paid off and now we are facing a lack of available workers for several skilled jobs in the area, including, Russ said, several skilled welding jobs currently available at Great River Industries paying between $60,000 to $70,000 per year.

Add to that, new industries about to go online in Vidalia, with Vidalia Denim and Syrah Technologies, expecting to hire more than 300 people in the next year.

Currently, Russ said, more than 400 jobs are available within a 35-mile radius and employers say they are having a difficult time filling with the available workforce.

While it is not the employment problem many people thought we had, the job openings are a good problem to have and is a testament to a strong national economy and the hard work local economic leaders have invested in the community.

As the saying goes, a problem is just an opportunity, and it is easy to see several opportunities in the Miss-Lou’s latest employment problem, including looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Instead of not having enough jobs for people, we now need to educate and train people to do the jobs we have available.

Either way, the Miss-Lou’s problems can no longer be blamed on a lack of opportunities.

Local branches of Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Alcorn State University now have an opportunity to partner with local industries to offer classes geared toward helping local residents gain the necessary skills to fill vacant positions at any of the 13 industries that say they cannot find qualified employees in the area.

Marketing efforts for Natchez and Adams County can be expanded beyond just tourism to tout the benefits of living in beautiful, historic communities, such as Natchez, Adams County, Vidalia and Concordia Parish, on the banks of the Mississippi River and within a short drive to Baton Rouge or Jackson.

Having lived here a year, I can attest that the Miss-Lou is a great place to live. We are blessed with friendly and diverse people.  We have great entertainment venues, live music, weekend festivals and events, beautiful, historic, antebellum houses and buildings.

What is not to love?

Now that the problem has been identified, it is time for community leaders to step up to the plate and organize a game plan, which I am sure they will do, and we can all look forward to the results of their efforts.

Scott Hawkins is editor of The Natchez Democrat. Reach him at 601-445-3540 or scott.hawkins@natchezdemocrat.com.