Report Says Mississippi Must Work To Compete In Global Economy

Mississippi needs to make education a priority to prepare people for work in the global economy, a new study says.

"We cannot afford to diminish our support for education and the building of a competitive work force,'' former Gov. William Winter said in releasing the report Monday.

The document, "Mississippi: A Sense of Urgency,'' explores how the nation's fifth most rural state should respond to changing global markets.

Mississippi is losing jobs in agriculture and manufacturing and gaining jobs in the retail and service sectors.

The report was written by officials from the Southern Rural Development Center based at Mississippi State University in Starkville and MDC Inc., a nonprofit research center based in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was produced after public meetings last fall in Hattiesburg, Greenville and Meridian and was released during a luncheon in Jackson sponsored by MSU's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps.

Lionel "Bo'' Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center, said Mississippi wages are slipping further below the national average.

In 1979, Mississippi workers earned 79 percent of the national average. In 1999, the state's average wage had fallen to 74 percent of the national figure.

He said fewer than 1 in 5 Mississippi adults has a college education, but a high school diploma will no longer guarantee a middle class living.

"Mississippi can no longer shield itself from national and global economic forces,'' Beaulieu said.

Ferrel Guillory, a senior fellow at MDC and author of the report, said most Southern states are having budget difficulties. Mississippi has struggled since last summer with lower than expected tax collections.

"Even when you're cutting budgets, you need to be careful not to cut the investments for the future,'' said Guillory, who also serves as director of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.

Winter was governor when Mississippi approved the Education Reform Act of 1982, which was designed to improve standards in public schools. Winter said the state needs to commit itself to more education changes with an emphasis on early childhood development.

"We are never going to be able to catch up until we have a higher percentage of our people who are productive,'' Winter said.

Among the findings in the report:

  • Officials need to reach across political, cultural and racial boundaries.
    "Mississippi cannot let city, county and state boundaries interfere with collaborative planning and decision-making, which are increasingly essential to economic competitiveness,'' the study says.
    It also says: "Mississippians of different races and classes still have to work hard at working with each other.''
  • Most jobs created in the next decade are expected to be for positions such as cashiers, salespeople, truck drivers and nursing aides.
    "To a large extent, Mississippi has exchanged low-wage farm and factory jobs for low-wage retail and service jobs,'' the study says.
  • Mississippi needs to overcome old ideas about education and jobs.
    Mississippi at times holds itself back by clinging to certain mindsets,'' the study says.
    "In an agricultural and low-skill industrial economy, it wasn't necessary for every young person to get a high school education to find work nearby. But in a global, high-tech society, Mississippi cannot afford having thousands of its citizens dropping out of school or otherwise approaching education without motivation.''