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More than 100 business and industry leaders from Hancock County gathered today at the Bay Waveland Yacht Club for a working lunch sponsored by the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi and the Bay St. Louis Rotary Club.

During the meeting, Scott Waller, CEO of MEC conducted a poll of attendees. 80% of those polled said they believe the economy is better today than five years ago. They also said that a healthy, more skilled workforce and an improved state image are top priorities for improving and creating a robust economy. The group believes that a prime factor hurting Mississippi’s ability to grow the population is a lack of amenities to appeal to younger workers.

During the meeting and following surveys conducted last year of 60 small and prime companies in Hancock County, workforce development topped the list as the number one issue facing business and industry. To address this issue, a workforce development committee has been formed in Hancock County. Workforce partners include the Hancock County Board of Supervisors, the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, the Hancock Chamber of Commerce, Pearl River Community College, Hancock County School District, Bay-Waveland School District, the employers in Hancock and community leaders.

A panel of community leaders was on hand at the meeting to provide information on the work of the committee.

Janel Carothers, Chief Development Officer for the Port & Harbor Commission served on the panel and said that last year the Business Retention and Expansion Program (BRE) surveys show that combined, the 60 companies surveyed employ over 3,500. Over the last three years, these companies have collectively added 220 jobs. More than half of the companies plan to invest $247.6 million in expansions and are expected to create more than 2,300 new jobs.

To support this job growth, she said the committee is focusing on becoming an ACT Work Ready Community, and announced that Hancock County has been accepted into this nationwide grassroots initiative.

Jessica Lewis of DAK Americas, an industrial tenant at Port Bienville Industrial Park, was part of the meeting panel and a company that participated in the BRE survey. She said her company has been using the ACT Work Keys program as a hiring tool for more than a decade.

Dr. Scott Alsobrooks, vice president of workforce and economic development at Pearl River Community College was also part of the panel and chairs the new committee. To make this work, the program is a partnership between the High Schools and the private sector. Together they will increase opportunities for high school students looking to enter the local workforce and take advantage of apprenticeships, internships and exposure opportunities through community college partners.
Waller said that 65% of job openings in the U. S. will require some type of post-secondary education and training beyond High School. The three fastest growing occupation areas in Mississippi are STEM, healthcare professionals and community services. During the meeting, business and industry leaders cited problem solving and decision making as the greatest skill set employers are seeking.

Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock Chamber was also a member of the panel and she said that the Chamber is an advocate for intense collaboration between private industry, communities and state and local leaders to build the workforce pipeline. The Hancock Chamber of Commerce would like to see a model for workforce development built in Hancock County that is driven by the needs of business and industry.

“Through the Hancock County Workforce Development Committee, we want to build bridges between people seeking jobs with education, training and what employers need,” she said. “To be a success, it must be driven by business and industry.”

Williams said The Skills Foundation of Mississippi is a new private – public partnership that will be the vehicle to accomplish the goal to bring all the workforce resources together to encourage citizens to choose training pathways that will ensure they are work ready.

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