Natchez Inc.’s Russ: Workforce issues a challenge here

Published 2:31 am Friday, May 17, 2024

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Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the state of economic development in Adams County.

NATCHEZ — Economic development efforts are driven in part by a community’s workforce.

And understanding that relationship is critical when evaluating the success of development efforts, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez Inc.

Chandler Russ, executive director Natchez Inc.

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Talking at a recent Natchez Rotary Club meeting, Russ gave members an update on economic development programs and progress. One of the more pressing challenges faced in Adams County is the workforce.

Citing the county’s dwindling population and how companies are battling for talented workers, Russ said more and more people have left rural areas and moved to urban areas in the past 30 years.

“Natchez is caught up in that, too. When people leave for college, they are staying in those urban areas like Austin, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. That trend is the mindset of this generation.”

He said since 1990, the U.S. has added 75 million documented U.S. citizens. “In the same period, rural areas have lost 3 million people.

“We’ve got to find ways to find that population loss and try to rebound or restore some of those people back to Adams County. It hurts us in a lot of different ways. It hurts us in our retail category. It hurts us in a variety of ways.”

One of the most significant is in the local workforce. Adams County’s labor participation rate — meaning the number of people ages 18 to 65 who are in the workforce — is at 45 percent.

“That means of all of the people who are 18 to 65 who are eligible to work, only 45 percent of them are actually working,” Russ said.

The state’s labor participation rate is 56 to 57 percent, he said, the lowest in the nation. The national workforce participation rate is 63 to 64 percent.

“So, when you see a shrinking labor pool, it’s really even smaller because of the participation of labor,” he said.

Russ said the problem in Natchez and Adams County is not that there are no available jobs.

“If you pull up Indeed or Monster or any of those resume and job tracking sites or even Mississippi Works, you will see at least 500 available jobs right now in our area ranging from fry cook to chemical engineer. Core Civic has 42 jobs open right now that pay at least $50,000 with benefits. People say there are no jobs in this area. That’s just not true.

“If tomorrow we would fill all of those jobs in our area at a rate of $40,000 average annually, that would be $20 million. That’s $20 million this community is losing because we can’t find people to work those jobs,” he said. “It’s a task that collectively we have to come up with a solution for. We need to move up to a participation rate of 55 to 56 percent, the state average, to be healthy. That would equate to getting about 500 people to go back to work here.”