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The head of the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) sought to impress on the DeSoto County business community the need to invest in not only the present but future workforce for job growth and fulfillment in the state.

Scott Waller, who has been with the organization for more than 11 years. Waller served as interim President/CEO of MEC for eight months when Blake Wilson left what is called the state’s “Chamber of Commerce,” and then took the job on a permanent basis in January of this year.

Waller spoke Friday to the DeSoto County Economic Development Council (EDC) Quarterly Luncheon at Northpoint Christian School.

Waller detailed opportunities which he said would help fuel the Mississippi economy with a special focus on making job choices more possible for graduates looking for employment out of school.

While he presented impressive statistics about Mississippi’s improving graduation rate and youngsters’ readiness to start kindergarten, Waller also quoted statistics that show about half of college graduates either are not working in their chosen field of study or who would have chosen another field of study for education if they had to do it over again.

While Mississippi boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 4.5 percent in March of this year, there are about 40,000 unfilled jobs each day and filling those jobs is considered one of the top ongoing challenges for employers.

“For that reason, we really have started focusing on what we needed to do to prepare our workforce to be ready to handle the jobs of today as well as the jobs of the future,” Waller said.

The rate of graduation from high school for Mississippi students has risen from 73 percent in 2012 to the latest figure of 83 percent statewide. Today, 65 percent of youngsters are considered ready to enter kindergarten.

But, Waller added that 46 percent of employers say they are having difficulty filling job openings and positions requiring skilled trades are the hardest to fill.

One way is to change the mindset of students that the only way to get a high-paying position is through a four-year college degree.

“We need to build awareness among our young people about what the opportunities are today,” Waller stated. “Not just our young folks, but also our adults. I am a true believer in lifelong learning. I think there’s always an opportunity regardless of how old you are and how much gray hair you have.”

The business community should help schools by offering a better awareness of opportunities available. Waller pointed out the average school guidance counselor works with an average of 400 students each day.

“They don’t have time to talk to them about what their career opportunities might be,” Waller said. “That’s not a knock against the guidance counselor at all. They just have so much on their plate that we need to find ways to supplement them.”

The DeSoto County EDC has started an effort to help in that area and to aid students discover career possibilities. Plans have been in motion for the first DeSoto Career Expo, called Pathways2Possibilities.

That is when about 3,000 eighth-graders will be able to learn about different industries during a two-day event at the Landers Center set for mid-October, with a program similar to other expos held elsewhere in Mississippi.

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.