Here and There

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Workforce development key component of economic development

*First appeared in the October 31 edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

This week I attended a workforce development conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and St. Louis, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, and other statewide partners. The event reminded us that, as MMA president and CEO Jay Moon said, workforce development remains a critical element of successful economic development.

Here are a few more observations from the event.

Panelists at the conference included representation from multiple states and a mix of the public and private sector, and conference attendees represented business and industry; education; and workforce agency stakeholders.

Throughout the day, much discussion centered around “soft” skills. That’s industry speak for things parents used to teach their kids – how to dress for work, how to have a good attitude, punctuality, and motivation to do a good job. Believe it or not, states are spending millions of dollars each year to teach workers these types of skills. Employers are clamoring to find workers who exhibit “conscientiousness” (as one panelist put it). To paraphrase another speaker, employers want a motivated workforce even more than a trained workforce.

As I’ve said before, when the family unit fails our kids, the government tends to step in. Ideally, parents – not training providers – would teach their children these very basic life skills.

Nicole Smith, senior economist at Georgetown University, raised the issue about Mississippi’s “brain drain,” noting our state is a net exporter of college graduates. In essence, we are training young workers to go somewhere else. This is particularly troubling in a state that already suffers from a historically low labor force participation rate (the number of people who are either working or looking for a job). This measure certainly won’t improve if our future workers catch the next train out of town.

Representatives from the construction and defense industries stressed that workforce policy should embrace all career and education pathways – both those which require a four-year degree and those that require a technical degree or certification. The earning potential of non-university careers was explored, with economist Smith noting that a bachelor’s degree in education typically pays much less than a two-year certification in an engineering-related field. (Students: Y’all take that to heart.)

Mike Beatty, president and CEO of the Great Promise Partnership, discussed a Georgia dual enrollment program targeting at-risk youth. The public-private partnership combines traditional classroom education with a job working about 20 hours a week as long the student maintains certain grades and behavior requirements. This program provides real-life work experience – such as those soft skills I mentioned earlier – and demonstrates the value and reward of hard work. It has helped turn the tides for at least 600 Georgia teens since the program’s inception and could be a model for similar Mississippi efforts.

Mark Henry, head of Mississippi’s workforce agency (the Department of Employment Security), is currently serving as president of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. In this role, he is advocating Congress give states maximum flexibility on federal workforce dollars. Amen to that, brother.

Conference attendees broke into small groups, with each group producing a single idea for further study by Mississippi workforce officials. These ideas ran the gamut: Emphasizing the value of work to youth; developing a single workforce development brand for the state; renewing our focus on entrepreneurship; understanding and overcoming the barriers faced by felons re-entering the workforce; unifying the education system; and developing workforce academies and ensuring courses taught by community and junior colleges meet employer needs.

These topics aren’t new, but they continue to be challenges faced by Mississippi as we look to improve our workforce delivery system. I suspect these issues will continue, at least in the foreseeable future, to dominate discussions on how to move Mississippi forward, since successful workforce development breeds successful economic development.

Economic development is, after all, the art of attracting new business and industry to a city, county, state, or region. While competitive tax structures, financial incentives, and other bells and whistles are important, a company won’t locate its next facility in an area without qualified workers.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Has American innovation peaked?

*First appeared in the Oct. 24 edition of the Laurel Chronicle

A few weeks back, I received an email from the Atlanta Fed outlining several news articles and presentations that interest those of us who nerd out (yes, that’s the technical terminology) on economic trends. I don’t always read these emails, but one sentence caught my eye. At three words, it was a question highlighted in bold that asked, quite simply, “Has innovation peaked?”

I felt a slight panic but a greater curiosity. Has innovation reached its pinnacle? Is 2013 the year in which we just call it quits? Will we never have another Da Vinci? Is Apple the best it gets?

I opted to read further about this thought-provoking topic, which led me to a presentation by Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University’s Departments of Economics and History. The presentation, entitled “Technology Then and Now: Why the Technopessimists are Wrong,” provided some context for the question at hand.

(And, if the title is any indication, innovation isn’t dead. We’re obviously still making up words – “technopessimist” – much like Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Good job, humanity!)

The presentation begins grimly: “A new wave of technopessimism is upon us.” (It should be noted that Mokyr is talking specifically about American innovation in his presentation.) According to Mokyr, we’re seeing this technopessimism play out in three different schools of thoughts. There is one school that believes most of the low-hanging technological fruits have been picked and that future inventions won’t impact humanity in a significant way.

How depressing.

A second school believes that while there are many things we can invent, Americans simply won’t because we are getting “too risk-averse, too complacent, too regulated, and our institutions are turning anti-innovative and sclerotic.” Like ancient Rome; we are, according to this line of thinking, a once-dynamic world now in decline.

Yikes. This is even worse than the first point.

The third school of thought believes that brave new technology will come but at a price. That price is the elimination of our jobs and the marginalization of mankind. Essentially our technological innovation will pave the pathway to fulfilling the prophesized dystopia we read about in high school required reading.

But friends, fear not; for there is hope, according to Mokyr. From a technological point of view, the rate of change will accelerate – not decline – over the next decades due to the increase in “useful knowledge” and something called “artificial revelation” (observations through instruments that allow us to see things that would otherwise be invisible).

In a nutshell, Mokyr subscribes to the belief that science and technology are equally dependent on each other; that is, technology fills the elemental gaps in our understanding of the world. We are not “hard-wired to see microbes, to watch the moons of Jupiter, to store terabytes of information in our brains…tools and machines we build do this for us.”

The main implication, Mokyr contends, is that there is a positive feedback loop between technology and science, and it’s only getting stronger. Which means that science will “expand at ever faster rates” and that technology itself will likely do the same. For Mokyr, it is “hard to see this dynamic system ever settling down on an equilibrium.”

That’s great news, America. But it’s only part of the reason Mokyr thinks the best is yet to come.

Mokyr’s “techno-optimism” is based on the unprecedented access to useful knowledge. The people driving innovation – the inventor, the engineer, the chemist, the physician – need access to best practices and lessons learned about what can and cannot be done. Old school “search engines” included encyclopedias, followed by textbooks with indexes, and then libraries which developed cataloguing systems to make scientific information findable.

Compare these methods to today’s access: By virtue of technological innovations, particularly the World Wide Web, “copying, storing, transmitting, and searching vast amounts of information…is fast, easy, and practically free.” The issue of access is hugely important because, first and foremost, an inventor must be sure he or she is not reinventing the wheel – and thanks to today’s technology, that is an easy question to answer.

Given the rapid development of access to technology and better scientific instruments, it is hard to imagine a world that doesn’t include an ever-accelerating rate of technological progress. Alongside this progress, warns Mokyr, comes “creative destruction” in that what we gain as consumers or citizens, we may actually lose as workers.

The workforce will change, just as it always has. The factory setting is being phased out and replaced by a “work where it suits you” economy. Robotics will be everywhere, including taking jobs previously held by humans, but new technologies will also create demand for workers to perform new tasks created. So not all is lost.

While I’m not in complete agreement with some of Mokyr’s ideas, I do agree with his theory that technology drives science; science drives innovation; and, gosh darnit, the human spirit drives all these things. Innovation has not peaked; it is not to be a relic of the past, and of this I am quite sure.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

4-year degree not required to achieve American dream

*First appeared in the Oct. 17, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

A few years ago, I noticed a banner hanging from a fence at the high school near my house. It read something along the lines of, “University or bust.” Its purpose, I suppose, was to encourage high schoolers to attend college in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

It reminded me of my own high school experience, where the refrain from counselors and other authority figures was essentially the same: A four-year degree is your key to success.

And, well, maybe that is true for some students. But this belief – one that I think is misguided – has been too broadly applied, resulting in parents, teachers, counselors, and eventually students believing that their only chance for success is to attain a four-year degree.

In today’s economy, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I keep thinking about my own experience. While I chose the maybe-not-so-practical path of getting a French and political science bachelor’s degree, my brother decided a four-year university wasn’t in the cards. He got an associates degree from Jones County Junior College and, quite frankly, is the picture of the American dream.

Seriously, you guys – my brother has a fantastic house that’s almost paid for, a lovely wife, a few cats and a Great Dane, and he recently bought his second boat. A facility technician at AT&T (where he’s worked for nine years, though it was still BellSouth when he first began the job), Jonathan receives a competitive wage, full healthcare and pension benefits, and opportunities for regular and double overtime (cha-ching!).

Importantly, he did all this without having the so-called “key” to success (a bachelor’s degree). I will also point out that not only did he skip the four-year college track, he also avoided the excessive student loan debt that often accompanies higher educational pursuits.

So what led him to this role, you ask? For starters, you need to know my brother is the guy you want with you if you’re stranded on a desert island. He can wire anything; he can build anything; he can troubleshoot anything…which is probably why he scored the highest in his grade on that military exam they give you in high school. Jonathan has been able to translate his natural aptitude for doing and building into an electronics career where he troubleshoots and maintains electrical circuits.

That’s what America – and Mississippi – needs more of: People like my brother who recognize their natural skillsets and turn them into meaningful careers.

Of course, I’m not the only one who thinks like this. I’ve spoken to countless company reps from across industry sectors – from energy to manufacturing, construction to telecommunications – and they share a common goal: They need more skilled workers, not necessarily those with four-year degrees.

This is particularly relevant with the onset of “onshoring,” or the trend of manufacturers locating plants in the U.S. due to changing dynamics within global markets. Rising labor costs in developing countries, affordable domestic energy, access to low-cost American capital, American productivity, and supply chain complexity has been the recipe leading to the influx of manufacturing jobs stateside.

Some economists estimate that onshoring has created between 250,000 and 500,000 jobs in America over the last three years, and the trend is expected to continue. Major companies like Caterpillar, Ford, and Apple are making heavy investments in U.S. facilities. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt told the Harvard Business Review that outsourcing “is quickly becoming outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.”

Because it’s becoming more economically viable to manufacture in America, our workforce capacity must gear up to supply the needed labor for the new demand. States in the southeast, which typically enjoy lower costs of living, competitive tax environments, and a Right-to-Work policy, are especially attractive to companies looking to bring back jobs to domestic markets.

That means Mississippi is poised to benefit from the manufacturing renaissance, as long as we ensure that we have the skilled labor necessary to do the jobs coming back onshore.

We must change our thinking on education, with a dedicated effort to de-stigmatize workforce training. Not every student needs to go to a four-year university, and that’s okay. Some students have a strong aptitude for technical learning and will thrive in the workforce with a technical degree or certificate.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has previously estimated that in the ten year span leading up to 2014, more than 40 million jobs (roughly three-fourths of total openings) would be filled by workers without bachelor’s degrees.

In Mississippi alone, individuals who lack a bachelor’s degree but have some type of skills training – whether it’s welding, electronics, plumbing, or even healthcare – can get high-paying jobs with good benefits. This is especially true in Southeast Mississippi, which accounts for the most industrial employment in the state with some 58,347 industrial jobs according to Manufacturer News.

We’re at a critical juncture. The global dynamics have shifted and favor a return of job-creating companies to the U.S., particularly the Southeast. But will Mississippi’s workforce culture change with it, or will we continue pushing the misguided idea that all students need a four-year degree to succeed?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Jackson comes to Jones: Lt. Gov, Speaker visit the Free State

*First appeared in the Oct. 10, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle.

This week, Jones County will be visited by two of the state’s top officials: Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn.

By the time you read this column, Reeves will have already spoken to the Jones County Republican Women during their monthly meeting at Western Sizzlin’. Gunn, on the other hand, is scheduled to stop at Laurel’s Train Depot at 8 a.m. this morning as part of his “Mississippi Solutions: An Ideas Tour.”

I first met now-Lt. Gov. Reeves while on the campaign trail in 2003, during which time he and his affable wife Elee spent hours upon hours politicking at festivals, fish-fries, county fairs – you get the idea – to convince voters that Tate (as he introduces himself) was the best choice for treasurer. To stick with the treasurer motif, I’d say they got a pretty darn good return on their investment.

Tate was elected as the first Republican treasurer in the state’s history; just four years later, he would be re-elected with 61 percent of the vote – the highest percentage of any candidate running for statewide office. (In Jones County alone, Tate garnered more than 68%.) Mississippians got to know Tate and his work ethic, and they liked what they saw.

Today this same work ethic has translated into his becoming a legislative force as the state’s Lt. Gov., with successes under his belt including balancing the state’s budget while increasing funding for education; reducing taxpayers’ overall debt burden; implementing education reforms like school district consolidation and the creation of public charter schools; and steering passage of business-friendly tax initiatives like the practical elimination of the state’s inventory tax and the Attorney General “Sunshine Act.”

Last month, the Lt. Gov. announced he would host the Mississippi Education Symposium in Tupelo alongside former U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. William Bennett (you may recall my previous column on Dr. Bennett’s book, “Is College Worth It?”). While many reforms have been adopted, events like this make it clear that Reeves won’t rest on his educational laurels just yet.

Let’s switch to the leader of the other house – the people’s house, as they say – Speaker Philip Gunn (note: only one “L”). I first met Speaker Gunn when I ran around the Capitol trying to push the agenda of the Governor’s Office, and then-Rep. Gunn was nice enough to take my calls. Because he is, as is often said, one of the nicest guys on the Capitol grounds.

First elected to the House of Representatives in 2004, Gunn has the natural disposition of a leader. When Republicans held no leadership positions under Democrat Speaker Billy McCoy's regime, Gunn found himself at the helm of the House Republican Conference, a group which organized the Republicans for the first time in modern history.

Gunn is a devout Christian, and his faith has helped him overcome even those events that are unimaginable to most of us. When he was in college, Gunn’s parents and sister were killed by a drunk driver. But, as columnist Sid Salter once wrote, “rather than embittering him, [Gunn’s] life experiences seem to have forged a man who values family, friends and community.” I have certainly found that to be true.

Gunn has shown bipartisanship in making appointments, giving both Democrats and Republicans coveted chairmanships. Even his “Ideas Tour,” as described in an official press release, reflects this mentality: The Tour is a “non-partisan town hall style series of meetings…a forum for all Legislators, citizens and the press to attend.”

To date, Gunn’s legislative accomplishments include playing a key role in passing a child protection act, a new voter identification law, and passing a conservative budget that doesn’t raise taxes on Mississippians. In his first year as Speaker, the Legislature ended its work early, saving hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars.

Together, the Lt. Gov. and Speaker make a dynamic team, working side by side to pass conservative legislation in the best interests of Mississippians. While each man has his own unique manner of governing, we must not forget that legislative successes are shared between the two chambers. After all, in order to become law, bills must pass both the Senate under the watchful eye of Lt. Gov. Reeves and the House under the steady hand of Speaker Gunn. Jones Countians – and all Mississippians – should be proud of the work these two leaders have accomplished since assuming their leadership positions almost three years ago

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Building the Party: E3 Vanguard works to draw minorities, women to the GOP

*First appeared in the Oct. 3, 2013, edition of the Laurel Chronicle

There's a lot of talk about Republican in-fighting these days. From cable television to lunchtime chatter, I hear complaints (veiled as "observations") near weekly. Politicos question the validity of strategies embraced by certain Republicans. Activists, rightly agitated by the dismal state of affairs in a Democrat-led America, demand flashy demonstrations from politicians lest they be seen as "RINOs" (google that one). All the while, elected members of the Grand Ole Party try to balance on a teetering beam of staying true to Republican ideals and negotiating fair deals to govern effectively.

It isn't always pretty and can be a source of embarrassment for some Republicans. Not this one: I'm a Republican, and quite proud of it. I'm a Republican because I believe we stand for all the right things (no pun intended). There are lots of Republicans. Some I like; some I don't. Some are especially conservative while others gravitate toward the middle. But that's okay, because I think our party wouldn't be so grand if we were a homogenous sort.

Diversity is key to sustaining the Republican Party and, with it, ensuring that conservative ideas are pushed forward in future generations...which means internal disagreements should be pushed aside to focus on evangelizing to those currently outside our reach.

The folks over at E3 Vanguard are doing just that. A group of roughly 100 members, E3 Vanguard was founded last November to focus on, among other issues, growing the Republican Party by strategic outreach to the African American community. Its leadership committee includes president Nic Lott, Rita Wray, Veronica Naylor, and Lee Bush.

Their mission is to educate the electorate, particularly African Americans, by focusing on "individual responsibility, strengthening families, quality education, economic opportunity, civic duty and faith in God." These goals are aligned with the core principles of the Republican Party, which is why E3 considers serving as an outreach arm of the GOP as part of its core function.

"E3 Vanguard welcomes the opportunity to focus on minority outreach at a time when our great nation continues to grow in diversity. We recognize that Americans from all walks of life embrace the very principles and conservative values we uphold,” E3 Vanguard president Nic Lott told the Chronicle.

As Lott alludes, the group isn't solely focused on the black community but desires to expand the base of the GOP by recruiting individuals whose values and beliefs are consistent with the Party. This broader focus includes all persons of color, women, and youth.

To date, E3 Vanguard has made progress, adopting a comprehensive strategy which includes items like development of a program matching minority college students with Republican business and government leaders. I know firsthand how important internships can be in formation of political views and, ultimately, career choices.

About the group’s initial success, Lott remarked that the organization has had “a great first year.” The group’s long term mission, he says, is “informing the electorate, growing the base, and building partnerships in achieving our goals.”

So far, so good. The group’s kick-off event was keynoted by former Governor and Republican partybuilder Haley Barbour. Plans are in the works for a 2013 Fall Forum, "United We Stand," featuring speakers like Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn discussing issues like education, the economy, and healthcare.

E3 Vanguard enjoys a collaborative relationship with the Mississippi GOP and has met several times with Chairman Joe Nosef. While the group is in its early stages, it appears the GOP establishment has embraced E3's mission - an indication that party leaders share the goal of increasing diversity within party ranks.

Being a Republican doesn't mean having a large collection of elephants and a framed picture of Ronald Reagan. There is no requirement that you wear red, nor a mandate to listen to country music (which, by the way, is my least favorite of all the genres). What a Republican does believe, however, is in individual freedom, personal responsibility, free market economic policies, and a society that respects our God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That covers a whole lot of us, doesn't it?