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Mississippi has a workforce problem which new state agency Accelerate Mississippi aims to solve

Mississippi doesn’t have a clear workforce development plan yet, but the state has found its playbook’s author in Ryan Miller.

Miller, head of a new state agency tasked with leading more Mississippians to skill training and well-paying jobs, has a monumental challenge ahead. Not only will he build an office from the ground up, but state leaders are looking to his guidance to address Mississippi’s most pressing economic problems.

The state continues to be one of the poorest in the country with some of the lowest average wages to match.

Mississippi may spend $350 million a year in state and federal funds on workforce development and job training, but that money is spread across a dozen agencies and within even more separate programs. Progress, or the lack thereof, has been difficult to track, stunting the state in its efforts to grow the number of Mississippians working or seeking jobs.

“It’s not just the left hand not talking to the right hand,” said Miller, who spent the last 13 years leading the manufacturing center at The University of Mississippi. “It’s that the left hand doesn’t even know that the right hand exists.”

While some states have had formal workforce development offices to assess labor needs and guide people to in-demand skills for decades, Mississippi didn’t pass legislation to create its own until last year. There has never been any one repository for that information and no clear structure to determine if investments are paying off and leading people to better jobs.

Now there is Miller’s 3-month-old office, recently named Accelerate Mississippi.

Gov. Tate Reeves delivers his address after being sworn into office during his inauguration ceremony inside the House chamber at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.

Gov. Tate Reeves has touted the importance of getting Mississipians great jobs since taking office.

As recently as June, the governor told the crowd at the annual Mississippi Economic Council meeting in Jackson that the state’s economic focus was on job training and keeping skilled workers from leaving the state. In the same speech, he shared his confidence in the new office and in Miller.

“I think this is going to be a real game changer,” he said of Accelerate Mississippi.

Mississippi has long struggled to raise its labor participation rate, which has remained around 56% for the last several months. That percentage accounts for how many of-age Mississippians are either working or looking for work. Mississippi’s rate, even before the pandemic, has regularly ranked in last place in the U.S.

While lawmakers outlined some of the new office’s roles, the structure, personnel and overall reach will largely be left to Miller’s vision. With so much of the workforce and Mississippi businesses still recovering from the pandemic, a lot rides on how the state navigates its current labor shortcomings.

“The name we came up with denotes we’re ready to run a marathon,” said Miller, 42. “And we have to start running.”

The father of three packed up his life in Oxford and resettled his family in Jackson. Accelerate Mississippi has a temporary space in the same building as the governor’s office.

Since assuming his role in April, Miller has racked up hundreds of miles on his Hyundai Tuscon criss-crossing the state to meet with CEOs and tour community college campuses.

Accelerate Mississippi has launched a website and social media accounts. Miller brought on two employees and started mapping out his method of better connecting the needs of the state by separating it into eight districts he calls ecosystems. Each will eventually have their own local office.

“Right now, I’m trying to get the word out: Accelerate Mississippi is positioned to serve you,” he said. “This is designed to be a one-stop entity.”

The office, Miller added, will be an easy contact for businesses considering expanding to the state, looking to see the state’s labor outlook; a partner for community colleges as they create programs to train for the most in-demand skilled jobs; a resource for high schoolers or Mississippians seeking pathways to a better career.

“We need diesel technicians,” Miller said, as an example. “There are companies in Mississippi right now that would hire as many as they could get.”

Those positions require training at community colleges that can be finished within two semesters and pay upwards of $60,000 a year starting out. Yet, the pool of qualified Mississippi workers isn’t there.

The demand for diesel technicians, who work on diesel-powered engines, is an opportunity to grow skilled workers the state has been leaving on the table, said Patrick Sullivan, the president of the Mississippi Energy Institute and chair of the State Workforce Investment Board.

“We have been talking about it for a year now,” he said, referring to the demand for the specialized mechanics. “So the question is what are we going to do about it? Now that we have a lead office, somebody with financial resources at hand, that can work with training providers and colleges to put togethers strategies and hit set targets.”

When Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann took office, every agency reported they were doing workforce development.

But Hosemann realized there was no accounting of those programs. Legislators and state leaders had no way of deeming which programs were successfully leading Mississippians to better jobs and which ones were failing.

Delbert Hosemann during the opening day of the legislative session in the Mississippi House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, January, 2020.

“There are a lot of different funding programs, different funding partners and employer partners,” said Sullivan, whose workforce board appointed Miller. “There’s a number of success stories but there has been a real lack of coordination across all these different parts and pieces.”

Hosemann and legislators pushed to create a workforce development office to address that. Miller and Accelerate Mississippi will give a workforce report to the governor, Hosemann and others ahead of the next legislative session.

“We want to coordinate program dollars to job training that is producing graduates with a positive economic life,” Hosemann said. “A lot of people are talking about workforce development. It’s become a political fixture. But we need good information about which programs are performing well.”

That report will not only cover how the several millions of dollars allocated to workforce training through Mississippi’s Workforce Enhancement Training and Mississippi Works are spent, but also whether the funded programs add value to the economy or increase the number of workers in the labor force, according to the legislation.

It will also assess how many workers the funded programs expected to train and how many were actually trained.

“I want to follow the numbers and see where we have the gaps,” Hosemann said.

Every state was mandated by federal law to set up a workforce investment board. Mississippi’s board is made up of 31 business leaders and public officials who meet to discuss ways to drive the state’s economic development.

Mississippi lawmakers approved funding for the board through payroll taxes in 2014 so it could support staff positions, Sullivan said. That administrative account is now what funds Accelerate Mississippi. Miller’s salary is $162,000. The funding is set up to be used to support adding positions, something Sullivan said the board and Miller will determine as the office grows.

Ryan Miller, Executive Director of Accelerate Mississippi.

The executive committee was looking for a workforce office director who was a strong communicator, analytical, worked well with people, had a background in public policy and understood industry needs.

“Also someone who has the intestinal fortitude to drive change where it’s needed,” Sullivan said. “When you consider all those requirements for the job, there are only so many people on Earth who are qualified. Ryan is one of them.”

Miller spent his entire career at The University of Mississippi. He majored in international studies as an undergrad there and then earned a law degree. He worked in the admissions office and eventually wound up at the helm of the university’s Center of Manufacturing Excellence.

In that job, he worked closely with industry, nonprofits and other colleges to grow work opportunities in Mississippi. He also knew how to have fun, regularly pulling out his guitar to perform impromptu concerts in the campus hallways.

“He really personifies the idea of the servant leader,” said Scott Kilpatrick, who worked alongside Miller at the university manufacturing center. “He’s not one to go out and bang his own drum. He puts others first and has that servant-first heart.”

Miller’s toothy grin stretches across his face when he starts talking about growing the state’s workforce and helping them land better jobs. He’s proud to have spent most of his life in Mississippi. He wants to see the economic opportunities grow, for Mississippians to feel confident they can stay here and prosper.

He is as much for celebrating the state’s successes as he is addressing its shortcomings.

“There is always a way in which we can do things better,” Miller said. “We’re never done.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.