Labor survey offers mixed results

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

Southwest Mississippi civic leaders, economic developers,employers and educators received both good and bad news Thursday ata labor summit at Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s ThamesCenter.

David Brandon, senior vice president of the consulting firmPathfinders, said the results of the Southwest MississippiAvailable Workforce Survey completed in September 2006 bore mixedresults. It did, however, identify the area’s strengths andweaknesses.

The survey polled heads of households and employers to determinedata that could be compared to both national and Southeastern U.S.standards through a database of similar surveys conducted by theconsulting company. The company also uses the data collected toadvise industrial clients on where to locate.

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“I still think the biggest problem you have, the biggest enemy,is the perception of Mississippi in the workplace,” he said. “Theperception is you’re uneducated. I’ve worked in this area longenough to know that’s not true, but that is the perception.”

The survey indicates the area has some educational deficiencies,but they are only marginally lower than those identified throughoutthe South, Braden said.

In contrast, many more employers in Southwest Mississippi saidthey were more satisfied with their employees’ math skills thanother employers in the rest of the South.

Another critical area in terms of recruiting industry that needsattention is workforce availability numbers, he said.

“For a lot of years, the buzzword was location, location,location. That worm has now turned,” Braden said. “The first andsingle-most important factor in 96 percent of cases is workforce.

“When companies are looking for a location they set parameters,and work force is primary among them,” he continued. “Areas thathave an available work force below that benchmark are dismissed outof hand.”

Unfortunately, he said, Southwest Mississippi’s numbers do notgenerate confidence among industrial investors.

The survey area has a population of 408,000 with an availablelabor force of only 205,000, Braden said. In most areas, apopulation that size would have a labor force of approximately300,000.

“That’s troublesome in that your labor force appears smallerthan it really is,” he said. “There seems to be a pretty low laborforce participation rate.”

Southwest Mississippi, Braden suspects, is approximatelyone-third a “cash economy,” where workers are paid cash for theirservices and the work is undocumented. A cash economy would accountfor the missing 100,000 potential workers.

“I’ve made that observation – and I think I’m right about it -but I can’t prove it,” he said.

Also troubling, but good for business, is that many workers inthe area expect wages that are below average, Braden said.

“Your workers are relatively inexpensive. I might even say theyhave a very low expectation of wages earned,” he said.

Southwest Mississippi workers, on average, expect $1.25 less perhour in pay. At a median income level, Braden said, that equates to$8,000 annually.

“This is just for the Southern states, it would be a much higherdifference nationally,” he said.

The area has a much higher percentage of underemployed workersthan other areas, said Braden, which could be viewed as a positiveby a potential industry.

Underemployed workers are characterized as those who are workingin jobs below their skill level or making less than a desiredincome, and are very attractive to potential industries. They oftenchange jobs frequently in an effort to keep improving theireconomic position, he said.

In most areas, he said, 74 percent of the available work forcehave been in their jobs for more than five years. The ratio here is63 percent, Braden said.

“That may be the result of the flux in your work force in thelast five years caused by industry closures, layoffs or otherfactors. I don’t know the local situation,” he said.

In terms of skills, the survey showed the area was strong infabrication and service-related fields and competitive in officeoperations. Other fields fell behind other southern areas tovarying degrees.

When Braden was asked how the survey would influence him as aconsultant to industry, the senior vice president said he was morecomfortable than he was before the survey about recommending thearea to a client.

He said the survey showed the area could provide acost-effective working environment and demonstrated its work forcehad the skills and characteristics to help drive the right type ofbusiness to success.

Braden recommended economic developers seek industries inmanufacturing and try to recruit for service centers and backoffice operations.

The area’s present work force demographic shows that 25 percentof available workers are in industrial jobs, 17 percent ingovernment, 15 percent in sales or service, 12 percent inhospitality and 10 percent in the medical profession, with theremaining percentage scattered among other professional fields.