Governors: trained workforce key to success in poor region

Published 7:01 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The governors of Mississippi and Alabama say the economically depressed regions along the border between the two states can benefit from recent announcements of new industries if workers can be trained to do the jobs.

Fresh off the announcement last week that the German company ThyssenKrupp AG would build a giant steel mill about 25 miles north of Mobile, near the Alabama-Mississippi line, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, both Republicans, said the area is ripe for spin-off development from the steel plant and from automobile manufacturing plants in both states.

Barbour and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist both endorsed Alabama’s bid for the plant, which is expected to draw workers from all three states.

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Alabama and Mississippi have received a joint $15 million federal grant to train workers in 37 counties along both sides of the state line. The governors spoke at a work force development conference Monday to discuss how to train people currently making $15,000 to $20,000 a year so they can make as much as $70,000 a year.

“There’s going to be as much development in this area over the next two years as there has been in the last 40 years,” Riley said as the two governors took turns speaking at Alabama Southern Community College to an auditorium full of economic development experts and officials from two-year colleges. Under the grant, workers would be trained by four two-year colleges in Alabama and four in Mississippi.

Barbour said the two states need to forget about the state line that divides them and work together.

“We have a lot in common and all that’s dividing us is that little old state line,” Barbour said. “The tallest mountain we are going to have to get over is providing consistent quality workers.”

Barbour was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Marsha, a native of Monroeville, whose father once owned the land where Alabama Southern Community College is now located.

Both governors suggested coming up with programs to train welders, which they said are in big demand in the ship building industries in Mobile, Ala. and Pascagoula, Miss. and will be needed when construction begins on the new steel mill and other projects.

“Today they could use 700 more welders just in Pascagoula,” Riley said. “Wouldn’t it be something if people making $15,000 to $20,000 could go to making $50,000 to $60,000 because we offered what they need to make it happen.”

The director of the Alabama Department of Economic Development, Bill Johnson, said residents of Alabama and Mississippi need to stop listening to the jokes of late night comics and look at themselves in the same light they are seen by international companies who want to locate their businesses in the southeast.

“It’s interesting that international business people view our states as hot places to be, yet they still make fun of us on Jay Leno and David Letterman,” Johnson said.

Both governors warned that if the two states don’t get serious about training workers, many of the employees of the new industries would come from other states.