Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Mississippi House Seaker Phillip Gunn, an attorney at one of the Jackson's largest law firms, quipped this week that he recently had to call a plumber to his Clinton home. When Gunn received his bill, he noticed that the plumber's hourly rate was the same rate Gunn charges to give legal advice.
At this year's annual meeting of the Mississippi Energy Institute, one of the prevailing themes that emerged from the state officials who took the dais was the need for an educated, skilled workforce. Specifically, remarks from Gunn as well as his counterpart in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, signaled that this legislative budget year could result in more money for workforce training at high schools and community colleges.
In Mississippi, where the word "investment" too often translates to tax giveaways for mega-corporations, which come at the expense of adequately funded schools, we welcome any effort to set aside funds to improve education. We're also more than a little wary of how the political discourse about educational investment seems to always stop with skilled trades (and school choice, but that's a conversation for another day). It's true that young people who want to be plumbers, carpenters, welders, and mechanics deserve to have all the resources and tools they deserve to make those dreams a reality. So should kids who want to be teachers, attorneys, astrophysicists and tech entrepreneurs.
Contrary to what too many of us have been taught, the economy does not consist of a two-tiered system of lower-tiered blue-collar and higher-tiered white-collar workers; the economy is made up of people, all of whom produce and consume valuable goods and services.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour made a valid point, speaking at the same event as Gunn, about the need to destigmatize blue-collar work. However, doing so will take a cultural shift in how we talk to young people about their futures. In an ideal world, workforce development would start in the early grades instead of presenting trades occupations as suitable Plan Bs to 18-year-olds unsure about what to do with their lives.
In truth, pouring resources into community-college workforce-development programs is unlikely to be effective without equally enthusiastic support and investment in K-12 education. We're painfully aware that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which dictates public-school funding, will not receive full funding and that the formula itself could be subjected to politically motivated tinkering this year.
However, workforce development, which already has the backing of the Republican leadership, seems to be an area to build consensus. That said, any legislative proposals should be thoughtful and involve all stakeholders in the educational community, including public schools, business owners and leaders, community colleges and four-year institutions.
If workforce training is one of the small percentage of issues our legislators seem to agree on, let's take the time and do it right. Let's build something strong and long-lasting.