The following article was first published by the Starkville Daily News on April 9, 2015.
By JAMES CARSKADON
Meredith Gunn, director of workforce development for the Mississippi Energy Institute, was back “in the middle school mindset” Wednesday morning as she spoke to students in Hannah Rachel Smith’s 8th grade English class at Armstrong Middle School.
Gunn was attempting to challenge the perception of manufacturing and manual labor jobs she believes many people have. With some workforce training during or after high school, Mississippi’s future graduates can fill the void of employees needed for advanced manufacturing jobs in energy and other industries, Gunn said.
As part of an MEI initiative, Gunn is trying to make sure young students know these training and career paths are available. Armstrong was her first school stop among a statewide tour to promote MEI’s new website, getonthegridms.org.
The website is designed to promote careers in energy and manufacturing and provide a database of training and jobs available. Gunn said she is hoping to change the way students feel about these jobs.
“What I’ve found when talking across the state is that people shy away when they hear ‘vocational,’” Gunn said. “A lot of it is just rebranding to show that these are great careers.”
The Mississippi Energy Institute is a “think tank” that Gunn said tries to be a resource for the energy industry and economic development in the state. The institute’s board of directors includes representatives from some of the largest businesses operating in Mississippi, including Nissan, Atmos Energy, Georgia Pacific and Chevron. Economic groups such as the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Economic Development Council also have representatives on the board of directors.
MEI president Patrick Sullivan describes MEI as “a non-profit business aimed at partnering with Mississippi’s government leaders, academic institutions, and economic development and business communities to develop growth-minded policies to maximize energy based economic development in Mississippi” on the organization’s website.
Mississippi Department of Education Associate Superintendent Mike Mulvihill said he has seen more investment in career and technical education (CTE) at the high school and community college level from industry.
“You’re seeing a real concerted effort to provide better workforce development,” Mulvihill said.
High school CTE programs are aligning their training to provide for transitions into community college and higher education programs, Mulvihill said. Additionally, community colleges are working to provide dual-enrollment workforce training classes at high schools.
Mulvihill said students in the 8th grade are taking interest inventories and aptitude tests that will help them put together a graduation plan for each individual. Counselors can then help guide students when trying to choose between workforce training certificates and four-year colleges. MEI is hosting a webinar for school counselors next week to inform them about “Get on the Grid.”
As Gunn took on the task of getting 8th graders to think about what kind of salary is sufficient to raise a family, she informed them that a welder with advanced training can make between $40,000-$100,000 a year. Of course, if those students do pursue a technical career, they will still need an education that incorporates life skills that make for quality employees, something Smith tried to impress on her students.
“We’re trying to teach you a lot more than how to write a paper or solve an equation,” Smith said.
Gunn said she will focus outreach efforts in Tupelo and the Delta, as well as areas where students tend to choose attending a nearby community college over a four-year institution after high school.