Will blueprint change the image of blue-collar jobs?

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Print this page by Robert Powell

“Thank God for Mississippi” once was a familiar expression in the Deep South, not because of any admiration for William Faulkner, Jefferson Davis or Ole Miss football.

People invoked the name of the Magnolia state when their own states performed poorly in any ranking of places with good education systems and low poverty.  Mississippi, it seemed, always brought up the rear, making its neighbors look slightly better.

But Mississippi is fighting this bottom-of-the-barrel stereotype. In the past eight years, it has chalked up a series of impressive economic development wins as a result of a strategic plan originally called Blueprint Mississippi, today known as Momentum Mississippi.

Now Virginia — one of the wealthiest and best- educated states in the nation, according to the Census Bureau — is borrowing a page from Mississippi and 11 other “blueprint” states.

Barry DuVal, the president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, unveiled plans for Blueprint Virginia during its economic conference in Williamsburg in November.

Appearing with DuVal at the conference was Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012. He said Momentum Mississippi, initiated by the Mississippi Economic Council, helped him set economic development priorities. 

“In the eight years I was governor, we actually lost employment,” he said in a deep Southern drawl.  “We had 2 percent fewer people working when I went out of office, but their per-capita income was 34 percent higher because we replaced lower-skilled, lower-paying jobs with higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs.”

Like Momentum Mississippi, Blueprint Virginia is envisioned as a continuous economic development plan to help ensure the commonwealth remains competitive in an increasingly global economy. The plan would establish a comprehensive economic development strategy for at least the next eight years.

In coming months, the Virginia Chamber will hold forums in 20 communities around the state while forming regional and industry councils. The project already has the backing of many state trade associations, economic development groups and local chambers of commerce.

Two areas that likely will be on Blueprint Virginia’s priority list are transportation and work-force development (which includes skills training for increasingly sophisticated blue-collar jobs).

DuVal noted that the Washington-Northern Virginia area ranks No. 1 in the nation among regions with the most traffic congestion. On an annual basis, each area commuter spends an average of 74 hours stuck in traffic, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Northern Virginia, however, is not alone in its traffic problems. Hampton Roads ranks 29th in traffic congestion, while the Richmond area is 63rd.  The total annual cost of traffic tie-ups in the state is $3.7 billion.

“Unfortunately, Virginia has slipped to No. 3 in the top states for business ranking by CNBC.  And the No. 1 reason for that is transportation,” DuVal said.

Barbour emphasized the importance of transportation in people’s quality of life as well as economic development. “What is the single most important commodity in the life of every American? Why it’s time,” he said. “People would love to spend more time with their children, but they’re backed up on 66 until the cows come home.”

But Barbour’s biggest current crusade is changing a national mindset about work-force development.  Despite relatively high unemployment in Mississippi when he took office, the governor discovered jobs were going begging because employers could not find people with the right skills. 

“We’ve got to get our arms around the fact that work-force training is not one time,” he said. “It’s lifelong learning. We’ve got to continue to upgrade the skills of our work force so you can stay productive. If we can’t offer that to employers, they’re not staying. More important, we owe it to our working people.”

During Barbour’s tenure, Toyota chose Mississippi for an auto plant, and GE Aviation built two jet-engine components factories there. When Toyota announced its decision, Barbour said,  “The first thing out of their mouths was, ‘We chose Mississippi for the quality of its work force.’

“The point is we have improved the quality of our work force. We doubled what we spend on skills training. The public has to understand that this is critical to economic growth.”

But for the U.S. to stay competitive, he said, “we must stop stigmatizing skills training in our country.” Too many students, he believes, are being pushed toward college. They often wind up with debt and a sense of failure if they don’t graduate. Many of these students are unaware of the high-paying careers they can achieve with the right training.

“An automobile mechanic in Jackson, Miss., makes $70,000 a year after five years of experience. Yet our schools are telling our students you shouldn’t go into skills training,” Barbour said.

Blueprint Virginia, he believes, “should be a flame in de-stigmatizing skills training.”

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