Ensuring a resilient Delta Region by training a skilled workforce
By Chris Masingill
Throughout the history of the Mississippi River Delta region, one thing has always been constant: a hard-working people ardently dedicated to the land they call home. Since its emergence as an American economic powerhouse in the 19th century, the Mississippi River's Delta region has experienced economic booms but also many busts. Economic, natural and social hardships and catastrophes have dotted the Delta's history, such as the Civil War and agricultural mechanization but most recently the growing exodus of manufacturing jobs from America, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crises.
In the face of all these hardships, however, the Delta region and its constant -- the Delta people -- have proven resilient, identifying lessons learned from what was lacking before and during these catastrophes and looking to the future as an opportunity to bounce back and emerge not only alive but stronger. It is through this resilience that the Delta and its leadership have made stronger the necessary infrastructure, social capital and intellectual capacity to weather the next storm.
As an example of this resilience, our region has taken major strides in growing an increasingly skilled and employable workforce, a fact that positions the Delta for economic growth in the near future. The past couple of decades have not been kind to the Delta region's economy. One of the greatest economic expansions in the history of the world occurred during the 1990s, yet the Dot-Com era quickly passed over our region; and the first decade of the 21st century saw two recessions and two slow recoveries that pegged the Delta as a low-cost, low-wage alternative to the rest of the country, yet not competitive enough to stop the flood of jobs to lower-cost, lower-wage Asian markets.
Communities and regions within the Delta learned from this oversight and job loss, identifying the necessity in strengthening the skills and abilities of our workforce in order to compete for the next opportunities for investment and economic growth.
There is now a burgeoning sector -- along with automakers, petrochemical and many manufacturing sectors -- in the Delta region that has emerged from the past decade ready to thrive, and it is our labor sector. . .our workforce. States, counties and communities across the region have recognized the manufacturing renaissance taking place in this country and know we can no longer survive simply as the center for low-cost American labor.
The tide of outsourcing American jobs is turning and the jobs that fled our borders in the past decade are now slowly coming back to our country and region. This is seen in recent investments such as the 363 manufacturing projects announced in 2012 with 200 jobs and/or $30 million investment -- projects that have generated $715.4 billion, nearly 40 percent of the manufacturing-generated U.S. GDP that year. Along with this magazine, other publications and economists are predicting that the future of U.S. manufacturing growth will be centered in the American South, and we believe that the Delta region is, and will continue to be, a major player on the South's job creation team.
In recognizing this, community leadership, economic development organizations and educational institutions have positioned their communities with programs and education systems that are producing and will continue to produce a strong pipeline of skilled workers. The Delta region sees its workforce as the key component to advancing local economies and expanding investment and opportunities for its communities and people.
Communities and regional entities across the region are doing a great job of building a strong workforce to directly meet the demand of local businesses and investors. And other communities are noticing the success of these programs and jumping on board. With this programming and future development, workforce training in the Delta is producing a labor pool that centers on the needs of business and industry and meets the demands of 21st century jobs.
States and localities in our region boast innovative and award-winning programs that directly tie worker training to specific industry or business needs, incorporating industry leadership or incoming business in the curriculum development and training process. Deep in the Alabama Black Belt, the University of West Alabama (UWA) is working with Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) in developing the curriculum for UWA's fledgling automotive technician certification program, connecting rural residents of West Alabama to the skills needed for high-demand jobs at MBUSI's production plant in Tuscaloosa, which recently invested $2.4 billion for expanded operations.
Next door in Mississippi similar programs are in place through Mississippi State University that are connecting manufacturers with local educational institutions and workforce needed to meet investment and expansion plans head on. With support from Holmes Community College in Ridgeland and the Japanese automaker Nissan, the Enhancing On-the-Job Problem Solving Program has provided employees and suppliers of Nissan and other advanced manufacturers in the area with critical skills training in industry and diagnostics, problem-solving methodologies and teaming strategies. Recognized with a 2012 Innovator Award by the Southern Growth Policies Board, this training cites 100 on-the-job projects, direct savings of more than $2 million, and wage increases for 70 percent of the students as a result of the program -- a prime example of the success a manufacturer can achieve through strategic partnerships with Delta communities.
In the Delta region, we as regional leaders recognize that we are competing with the rest of the world for investments and jobs. And so DRA's vision for the region's future workforce is a comprehensive, systematic approach to training that builds upon the models that are working across the world -- best practices that emphasize dedicated commitment of stakeholders from federal, state and local government and education of all levels -- and transcends state and local borders to share resources, ideas and talent to advance opportunities for job creation, business investment and high quality of life for all Delta communities.
States and regional clusters are already working toward this goal and seeing success in efforts scaled beyond singular communities and programs. Louisiana's FastStart program, described as "the gold standard for workforce training solutions" by Business Facilities' Editor-in-Chief Jack Rogers, works directly with incoming manufacturers to identify workers in Louisiana already equipped with the necessary skill level and tailor further training to the specific needs of that new business. FastStart brings training resources from throughout the state to one program that provides confidence in the workforce and tailor-made service for investors in Louisiana.
Kentucky has approached statewide workforce efforts similarly to state site certification programs, building a framework for identifying, evaluating, and eventually designating counties and their populations as "Work Ready." The Work Ready Communities program, one of the country's most rigorous workforce certification processes, evaluates county workforce readiness and capabilities based on high school graduation rates, National Career Readiness Certificate holders, community commitment, educational attainment, soft skills development and Internet availability. The steps that county workforce investment boards must take to meet these standards are creating vibrant, skilled workforces, and western Kentucky -- part of our Delta region -- boasts seven of the state's 25 Work Ready communities.
One of the most innovative and expansive programs happening on a regional scale is the Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium (ADTEC) in East Arkansas. Incorporating five community colleges throughout the Arkansas Delta, ADTEC synthesizes the faculty, curricula, equipment, and intellectual capital of these five schools to provide skills training and certification to students based on the needs of local sector clusters in eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee such as Advanced Manufacturing, Allied Health, Aviation Technology, Renewable Energy, and Transportation Technology. In its Advanced Manufacturing program alone, ADTEC has trained nearly 10,000 new and incumbent workers.
This award-winning program is a model for how to pool resources for a regional program. In only seven years ADTEC has captured nearly $70 million in workforce training and infrastructure investment from state, federal and private partners allowing East Arkansas community colleges to develop technology and training so cutting-edge that major universities in the area are partnering to train their own university students.
In partnership with FedEx, Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, Ark. -- one of ADTEC's anchor institutions -- provides employer-specific training to meet FedEx's demand for current and future Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic, recognizing that a majority of current A&P mechanics will be retiring over the next ten years. ADTEC emphasizes the importance that education institutions have in providing degree programs that ready their students academically while directly connecting industry to the students and training that it demands.
Three Rivers College (TRC) in Poplar Bluff, Mo., has recognized this need among the Missouri Bootheel's most rural communities and has taken its training programs on the road with two 40-by-36-foot mobile training labs. Through direct investment from the Delta Regional Authority, TRC provides skills training to area employers in fields from leadership to specialized pneumatics and electronics. The labs also have the capacity for small computer lab settings that allow businesses already equipped with training modules to host software-based and online training on site.
Additionally, Southwest Tennessee Community College (SWTCC) in Memphis, Tenn., provides direct training and job placement for technical skills in the local manufacturing sector. A central program of the Made in Memphis initiative, SWTCC's Industrial Readiness Training program teaches and measures foundational technical, academic and interpersonal knowledge and skills that have been identified by local manufacturers as critical to long-term employee success. Graduates from the program receive National Career Readiness Certification and often job placement with Memphis area manufacturers.
Many of these programs have the support of community organizations and private industry as well. In direct support of the local workforce investment board and community leadership, ManTraCon in southern Illinois provides broad-based training, recruitment and placement services that directly connect the workforce of five counties with the employers in its area. ManTraCon has proven especially helpful in assembling cross-sector partners to address job creation and workforce development needs in the face of facility closures and new investment.
These are just a handful of the innovative, model programs throughout the Delta region that are meeting the demands of the 21st century job market: using public-private partnerships to link institutions of higher education with the businesses in their communities; cutting down training cost and lost work hours; supporting direct mentorship between business leaders and students in the local education system; creating sector-specific collaborations that link industry to communities and academics so that they may co-develop training curricula; and building programs that are crossing local borders and traditional barriers to increase access to education and training opportunities in some of our more rural areas.
We must take these pockets of innovation that are emerging in states, communities and individual schools across the South and extend throughout the region. These individual programs are capitalizing on local expertise as well as using statewide support toward the goal of systemic workforce development. However, they are currently only the models for the greater system we need, the bricks for the foundation, a few pieces of the larger puzzle.
The next step with these programs is to expand to new communities and share between states across the region as a coordinated approach to workforce development. This is already beginning to take form, as nine community colleges in eight states have received funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop the Mississippi River Transportation, Distribution and Logistics Consortium (MRTDLC). With nearly $24 million in grant funding, MRTDLC's member institutions -- five of which are in the Delta region -- will collaborate to train and place dislocated and other workers in high-wage, high-skill occupations in transportation, distribution, logistics and other related industry sectors that are a major foundation for economies along the river.
In support of many of the programs previously mentioned -- and even more that are not -- the Delta Regional Authority has been focusing on bolstering our region's workforce in recent years, investing more than $8.8 million and leveraging an additional $23 million in public and private investment since 2010 in 72 workforce development programs across the region.
In partnership with Ted Abernathy, the Southern Growth Policies Board, and the Delta Regional Authority, we have released a publication titled Reimagining Workforce Development: 2013 Report on the Future of the South, which identifies further workforce development as a great potential for our region's economic opportunity. The report provides a framework for how we as community leaders can build upon the successful models we already have in the region and continue to build an education pipeline that provides our workforce with the skills needed to compete for both basic and advanced manufacturing jobs and attract outside business investment.
We're doing a lot of things right across the region, and our work for the future will continue to identify and promote new models so that they will become the new norms, focusing on strategies and programs that allow the entire region to tap into an integrated system that provides career pathways to trained and educated Delta citizens. With a skilled and adaptable workforce comes a resilient, strong and ever-growing economy that can weather any storm of the future. A resilient region makes for a positive and safe place to invest. That is the Delta region.