Mississippi is winning.
That's how Glenn McCullough, executive director for the Mississippi Development Authority, characterized the state's recent economic development strides in a keynote address for the sixth annual Manufacturing Summit, which Mississippi State University's Franklin Furniture Institute hosted Wednesday [March 16].
Touting Mississippi's top 10 national ranking in manufacturing, specifically its footprint in the automotive, shipbuilding and furniture industries, McCullough said companies globally are finding the Magnolia State an attractive location to do business. He said Mississippi ranks first nationally in competitive workforce costs and fifth in women-owned businesses. Add the nation's top-ranked community college system, he said, and Mississippi is primed for sustained economic growth.
"Our economy is growing, but we want it to grow at a faster pace," said McCullough, former Tennessee Valley Authority chairman whom Gov. Phil Bryant appointed to lead MDA last year. "We not only make things, but we make things that provide value. The winners in Mississippi's economy are the people who continue to find innovative ways to manufacture their products."
More than 100 representatives from businesses, state agencies and economic development organizations attended the day-long summit that included seminars and panels covering areas ranging from workforce development and laser-based additive manufacturing to big data storage and cyber network security.
The Franklin Furniture Institute is a multi-disciplinary effort at MSU focused on wood-product research, technical training and continuing education. Bill Martin, director for the Franklin Furniture Institute, said he and his staff try to identify important themes for Mississippi industries each year and bring experts to the summit to talk about them. The summit's goal, he added, is to arm manufacturers with knowledge and tools to make them more competitive in today's global market.
Martin said bringing in MSU's leaders in bourgeoning technological fields gave "very timely" insight to summit participants. He noted, however, that one of the biggest challenges to Mississippi's manufacturing industry is simply building the workforce.
As part of the summit, James Williams, executive director for the Mississippi Workforce Development Board, spoke about the state's Pathways program, which aims to train and connect unemployed and underemployed Mississippians with good paying, middle-skill jobs. Williams said only 55 percent of Mississippians over the age of 16 were in the workforce, and by providing a solid basic skills and vocational training program, that number could greatly increase.
Other challenges facing Mississippi, McCullough said, are better marketing its natural resources and transportation avenues to draw even more private capital investment that would create high-paying jobs. He said Mississippi boasts 19.6 million acres of standing timber and 16 ports. Further, he wants to see more growth in Mississippi tourism.,p> "We want people to enjoy our state," McCullough said. "When people come here, they are always surprised on two fronts: they love Mississippi hospitality and they can't believe how beautiful it is here."
He said Mississippi also is "on offense" when it comes to research and development initiatives. He specifically mentioned the national Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems housed at MSU.
Discovering new knowledge is the secret to continued growth, McCullough added, because it gives Mississippi an even greater opportunity to lead globally in manufacturing.
"We're going to go around the world telling Mississippi's story because it's a great story," he said. "And we're not done yet. We still have a lot of work to do."