Community forum brings educators, businesses together

“If you don’t tell us, we don’t know. And we want to know. Those types of conversations make a true difference.”

That’s how Meridian Community College President Dr. Thomas Huebner concluded the first Community Forum with business and educational leaders held Wednesday in the MCC-Riley Workforce Development Center addressing the workforce issues in the community. The repeated theme: Education connecting better with the workforce.

The one and a half-hour long session brought together business and educational leaders including Dr. Amy Carter, superintendent for the Meridian Public School District; Dr. John-Mark Cain, superintendent of Lauderdale County School District; Dr. Terry Dale Cruse, administrative director and head of campus at Mississippi State University-Meridian and Bill Hannah, president and CEO of the East Mississippi Business Development Center, to the stage to explain current educational efforts and needs of the businesses in the area.

“All of us have an opportunity to make a personal investment within our area of concern or interest. What’s important for all of us is the open dialog, the communication,” Dr. Huebner said.

Special guest panelist, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, presented results from surveys completed by his office that questioned corporations and limited liability companies. One response that repeatedly surfaced was that an educated workforce is what businesses want, Hosemann said.

In a 2018 survey asking what qualities were most important for an educated workforce, results revealed work ethic, honesty and communication skills were vital. “The most important thing: You come to the job, you do the job, you talk to your fellow employees, and you’re honest with your employer,” Hosemann said. Sometimes called soft skills, Hosemann said, “but they are not soft skills to me. They are critical skills that we need for an educated workforce.”

Hosemann also stressed that businesses must connect with the education community and communicate their needs.

Dr. Carter noted that it is essential to invest in the schools’ workforce. “If you don’t have the personnel there to educate children, it makes it a difficult journey,” she said. She also shared that MPSD officials are investigating a new student empowerment and development program, The Leader in Me, based on Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Mentioning the recently held LCSD career fair at the MCC-Riley Workforce Development Center geared for high school juniors with some 60 vendors attending, Dr. Cain said he received positive feedback from the vendors. “A lot of them commented the fair was wonderful. They saw what we have to offer, and we expressed what we need,” he said.

Dr. Cruse reviewed programs at MSU Meridian – the bachelor of applied technology degree, the professional master of business administration and the master’s physician assistant degree – which are unique and specifically tied to this area.

Addressing the audience, Hannah said, “I work for every one of you. Our job is to sell what this community has. We’re very interested in our community growing.” The workforce is an essential piece in industrial development, he added.

“Workforce is a huge challenge to us all. The only way we can address it and be successful is to do things like this today,” Hannah added.

Audience questions ranged from the progress of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Mississippi Scholars program, where business leaders help to motivate students to complete a rigorous course of study in high school, to Hoseman’s encouragement of businesses to offer job shadowing opportunities for students as a way to connect with students who could, in turn, become good employees.

Another question asked if there was any data about what happens to students after their education is completed; MCC career and technical education programs follow and track graduates, said Dr. Richie McAlister, MCC associate vice president for workforce education. Addressing the question if there was any stigma associated with career and technical education, that attitude is changing because of the national need for technical workers. “In Meridian, we’re leading the state in dual credit opportunities,” said Rob Smith, MPSD Ross Collins Career and Technical Center director. “Career technical (education) is opening up and creating opportunities for students,” Smith added.

Also, the question of what are the efforts in place to retain our students was asked. “Once they get these certifications and training, what are we doing to keep them here? Because I know for many of them, they will be considered as the high earners in their families in some of our communities and we're looking at opportunities. How can we use this as an opportunity to disrupt some of the poverty we see here in our community?” asked Stephanie Wright. Dr. Huebner offered that Mississippians should not define success as the ability to leave the state.

“We have to redefine now what success means,” said Dr. Huebner. “It should mean your ability to impact change… to make things better, to influence positively the things in the community where you grew up,” he said. “I think we have to start talking differently what success means for a student,” he added.

“We encourage students to come home, but sometimes the opportunity is not there,” Huebner added. “When those jobs come here, they (the students) come home.”

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