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Waller talks opportunity, career coaches and strengthening Mississippi's workforce
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Scott Waller, CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council
Antonio Smith

January’s guest speaker was Shubuta native Scott Waller, President and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council. During the luncheon, he outlined opportunities in our state to develop a sustainable and skilled workforce through the collaborative efforts of education providers, businesses and all involved in workforce development.

According to a study released by Georgetown University he shared, 65 percent of job openings in the U.S. will require some post-secondary education and training beyond high school by 2020.

“Instead of 2020, I now say ‘today’,” Waller explained, “More and more focus has been put on acquiring post-secondary education, and I’m happy about that because now post-secondary education does not just mean a college degree.”

Local community colleges have some programs in place that do a great job of preparing students for a path of four-year university or career, Waller acknowledged. Which is why he stresses the importance of refining the methods to prepare these students that may have entered directly out of high school, while also considering members of the adult workforce that need additional training as well.

A few years ago, MEC conducted a study to figure out how to go about doing that, he said. In this study they created a term called “opportunity occupations,” or jobs that had a high earning potential, and also required some form of post-secondary education.

“In 2017, I went across the state and spent a lot of time talking to businesses and I would ask ‘what is the one thing that we need to be focused on?’” Waller shared.

Responses mirrored the nationwide data shared from Manpower Group’s U.S. Talent Shortage Survey: 46 percent of U.S. employers report difficulty in filling open positions, with skilled trades the hardest jobs to fill.

Waller explained that MEC used the term “practical skills” rather than soft skills during their research, because the term “encompasses the soft skills that are necessary but also the critical thinking and communication skills that we don’t often consider vitally important to what we do.”

Waller explained that there was extensive research done on early childhood education, and the benefits of strengthening that level have far reaching results. He referenced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 report, “Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow: The Business Case for Early Childhood Education.”

“What we learned is that there is a great cost– about $3 billion dollars across the U.S.– that results from a lack of quality childcare, costing businesses money because parents are not able to work without it,” Waller said.

The second component of focusing resources on early childhood education is that it should result in better foundational education for children, he explained. They are then better prepared for matriculating through the school system.

Waller also stressed the importance of building awareness, especially among young people, of employment opportunities that exist by connecting students to professional “career coaches” who can help them access opportunity occupations they may not know about.

“We have to value all jobs. For years, there was this stereotype that if you didn’t go to college, you weren’t successful. So, we have to break the stereotype of what’s a successful career and what is not. There are careers out there that pay well that actually fit that person’s passion,” he said.

Connecting the dots between post-secondary education and training, as well as create better coordination and collaboration among those involved in workforce development are two primary initiatives Waller indicates will set the state on the right track for a qualified and prepared workforce.

“Connecting the dots is such a big part of what we have to do in this state on the education level that if we fail to do that, we fail our youth,” he added. “At the end of the day, for us to have the workforce that we need, we’re all going to have to work together.”