are looking at issues that are going to have a big impact on our economy and a big impact on our workforce.”
MEC then brings the community voices to the state legislature with the goal of improving economic development in Mississippi.
“Economic development. That's a very, very key issue for us,” Waller said. “We have to be focusing on all of the things that are going to make it easier for Mississippi to compete when it comes to economic development.”
Waller began his presentation by asking Rotary members for their opinion on the state of Mississippi's economy compared to surrounding states.
Question: How would you describe Mississippi's economy?
49 percent said Mississippi is about the same as the surrounding states 43 percent said Mississippi is worse than the surrounding states
7 percent said Mississippi is better than the surrounding states
Waller found the results encouraging.
“That's encouraging because we've been doing this question a lot over the last three or four years and those numbers are really starting to shift to those top two categories,” Waller said. “That's one of the reasons we're excited about what's ahead because we are starting to see the tides turn and put us into a position to be successful.”
Next, Waller asked members for their opinion on the state of Mississippi's economy now compared to the past.
Question: In your opinion, is Mississippi's economy better off today than it was five years ago?
81 percent said yes 14 percent said no 5 percent said not sure “We have been in the 80s at every meeting, which tells me there is a strong, strong belief that our economy is getting better,” Waller said. “And I think when you go around the state and you see the activity that's taking place I think you are really starting to see that.”
During the rest of the presentation, Waller shifted his focus to the impact different strategies of workforce development could have on economic development in Mississippi.
“Where do we take our workforce (so it can reach) the next level?” Waller asked.“I'm going to spend a great deal of time talking about workforce development. When I go across the state, that is the one issue that always comes up. It's the number one thing people feel like we need to be focusing on.”
Waller began with another question, which focused on Starkville's workforce preparedness.
Question: How prepared is the workforce in your area to meet the needs of today's existing industries and the jobs of the future?
76 percent said somewhat prepared
13 percent said not at all prepared
8 percent said very prepared
“Why is this so important?” Waller probed.
Waller said Mississippi officials announced the lowest unemployment rate recorded in the state's history a year ago.
“But then right after that they started talking about the number of jobs are available,” Waller said.
Mississippi Works reports there are approximately 40,000 unfilled jobs in Mississippi currently, but according to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, Mississippi's unemployment rate is at 4.7 percent.
“So why are those that are not working, not?” Waller asked. “We believe that we have to really focus on getting them the skills that they are going to need to be successful.”
In fact, Manpower Group found in a survey that 46 percent of U.S. employers report difficulty in filling open positions, with skilled trade positions as the hardest to fill.
“We have to be focusing on how we're making sure we're getting skills to these students and to any of our adult workforce that need it,” Waller said.
When Waller asked what the greatest workforce skill set was that was needed in the Starkville community today, 70 percent of Rotary members said career and technical preparedness with workforce certification and/or a twoyear degree was the greatest local asset.
Waller said many communities are seeing a need in technical and career preparedness, but Manpower Group surveys indicate a need for employment in jobs that require a bachelors degree as well.
“So we've got to be focused on (preparing) both (workforces),” Waller said.
Waller said he believes helping students find their passion is a key component of the workforce development. The next step is preparing them for those passions.
“I think the key is helping students find that passion. Focus on the types of training and degrees that is going to put them in the workplace,” Waller said. “I think sometimes, though, the guidance that they get does not put them in the right place to (be in the workplace).”
A study by McKinsey & Company reports 30 percent of college graduates entering the workforce don't feel prepared, 53 percent are not working in their chosen field and 53 percent would choose a different field or college if they could go back.
Waller encouraged local communities to address this issue.
“So as an organization, as community leaders, we have to be thinking about ways that we can help these students explore career pathways that will make them successful and then celebrate that success when we do it,” Waller said.
Waller asked the Rotary members a final question on local economic growth.
Question: Where do you see the greatest opportunity for economic growth in your region?
53 percent said advanced manufacturing
16 percent said start-up companies
14 percent said retail and service
Waller challenged the community to help the future workforce of Mississippi.
“My challenge to you in the workforce toady is to help our future workforce find that passion,” Waller said. “We must value all jobs. For so long, if you weren't going to college, you weren't considered successful.”
Waller said he is optimistic for Mississippi's economic future.
“I think we're in a position in Mississippi where we can do some extraordinary things,” Waller said. “We have to have a vision that's going to set us apart.”
“If we have a vision, if we work together, we can make a difference,” Waller concluded. “We can improve our workforce, we can provide those opportunities, we can help our children find that passion. But more importantly, we can make Mississippi a better place.”