Tupelo MS – Community leaders from northeast Mississippi heard a presentation Friday morning, February 14, by the president of the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC). MEC President Scott Waller spoke to the group gathered at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo. His appearance in Tupelo was part of the “MEC 2020 Tour to Focus on Building a Better Mississippi.”
Tupelo is one of 18 cities on the MEC 2020 tour, which started in Corinth on January 23. The tour concludes in Gulfport on March 19th. During the Tour MEC seeks input from community leaders on what needs to be done to improve the state’s economy.
Waller made the Tupelo group aware of some of the input gathered thus far this year. “Ninety-eight percent said the state is suffering from ‘brain drain,’ with educated and capable workers leaving the state,” Waller said.
In surveying the group in Tupelo, results showed agreement that most Mississippians have a fairly positive image of our state, but nearly 100 agreed that people outside the state have a negative view.
Those at the Tupelo meeting were also split on the quality of Mississippi’s workforce and about half of them felt students in grades K-12 are still not being adequately prepared for the workforce. They think community colleges are doing a better job of preparation and the four-year colleges better still, but more is needed.
“Most employers believe their workforce will require additional training in the next 10-20 years,” Waller said, so the need is not just in secondary and higher education.
Concerning an issue that might not seem so related to business, Waller asked about the influence of the state’s flag with its Confederate association. Opinion in Tupelo was split as to whether the state flag negatively impacts recruiting talent. with a slight majority saying it does. Nearly two-thirds said they believe the flag does not have a negative effect in keeping young people here, Waller said.
It was probably no surprise that most agreed good health care is essential to the economy, with 81 percent strongly agreeing.
Waller also brought up transportation.
He noted that the legislature passed a measure last year to give $200 million for state and local transportation. He asked if those present thought that amount would be adequate. Nearly 87 percent said it would not be. They supported the idea that the state needs a long-range comprehensive plan for transportation.
Waller said Mississippi’s good points are sometimes overlooked.
Factors that help drive the state’s negative image cited by Waller include the state flag, a poor educational system, poverty, population loss, racial relations, gender bias and a lack of access to healthcare.
Creating a positive image are strong values, a sense of community pride, low cost of living, improvements in the state’s education system and a pro-growth mindset, he said.
Paraphrasing CREATE Foundation founder George McLean, Waller said, “If we don’t tell our own story, someone else will tell it for us.”
“To attract and retain talent, we need to create a sense of place,”Waller said.
Concerning education and the economy, “We need to fix gap racially and between males and females.”
The answer to many economic problems is to grow Mississippi’s workforce in general, he said.
“So how do we create something that will be the envy of the nation?” he asked. “First of all we need to work together.”
Waller quoted Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens who said, “The greatest force of change is a job.”
“Provide pathways with a clear career in mind,” Waller said. “Address the needs of today while charting a course for the future. A healthy workforce is vital to the economy,” he said.
Waller’s presentation included video comments from MEC Chairman Lex Taylor of Louisville MS and a variety of state officials.
The Mississippi Economic Council is a private, non-profit organization that receives no government funds and is supported by members. They refer to themselves as Mississippi’s Chamber of Commerce. Their motto is “We are the voice of business.”