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Chris Caldwell

Chris Caldwell

Last week, a Wall Street Journal article highlighted that Foxconn, a Taiwanese supplier for Apple, is considering outsourcing Chinese engineers and skilled laborers for its new facility in southern Wisconsin.

With state and local governments pledging nearly $4 billion in tax and performance-based incentives, Foxconn was one of the state’s largest economic development deals in 2017 with the company’s commitment to invest $10 billion, build a 22-million-square-foot facility, and hire 13,000 factory workers, engineers and business support positions. But a tight labor market in Wisconsin has made recruiting a challenge for Foxconn, which begs the question: what is the value of creating new jobs when the readiness of the existing workforce cannot meet the company’s labor demand?

Monday, Nov. 12, marked the beginning of National Apprenticeship Week, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. For the past four years, the Department of Labor has dedicated a week for businesses, workers, educators, and other community leaders to recognize the role of apprenticeships and other work-based training models in developing a highly-skilled workforce for job creators in the 21st century economy.

While the Mississippi River Delta region has experienced its share of successes, the region has not seen the same level of economic activity realized across much of the country. In fact, much of the region has failed to restore pre-recession population, wage and employment levels.

Unfortunately, this has been the trend for much of the South, and a disproportionate reality for Delta communities. However, opportunities exist for our region to change this trajectory.

Moving forward, Delta communities must rethink how they can better position themselves in an increasingly competitive market for capital investment. No longer are Delta states only competing with their domestic neighbors. Delta communities are now competing in a global market where the availability of a highly-skilled, productive workforce is becoming as attractive to firms as low-cost land and product inputs.

A report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, in collaboration with the St. Louis Federal Reserve, noted the trend of new employment opportunities in the South requiring more technical and knowledge-based skills. Increasingly, these “middle-skill” positions are becoming the norm. And while these positions often require post-high school education, seldom do they mandate a four-year collegiate degree. FedEx, one of the Delta’s homegrown companies, is successfully creating their own workforce pipeline through their Pathfinder program which places non-college-educated workers in temporary positions which typically translate into full-time employment in quality jobs such as software development.

To be clear, I am not minimizing the role of a traditional college experience in fostering talent and creating opportunity. However, with the rising costs of higher education, high school students are increasingly forced to consider the tradeoff of post-secondary education and shouldering burdensome student debt. Therefore, we must consider the alternatives and provide options for those who are unwilling or unable to attend a four-year university. Moreover, we cannot forget about those already in the workforce still recovering from the economic impacts of the recession and could benefit from advanced work-based training or upskilling.

In June 2017, President Trump signed an executive order promoting the role of apprenticeships and other effective job training programs for securing pathways to high-paying employment and creating pipelines of skilled workers to meet the needs of industry. Sector-based apprenticeships and other learn-and-earn models provide a low-cost, effective means for Delta workers to gain the skills needed to compete in the job market as well as increase firm-level productivity.

Combined, these factors can create a new narrative for attracting outside investment while also fostering the expansion of existing businesses and industry clusters.

In support of the President’s mission to increase the availability of apprenticeships and the Department of Labor’s National Apprenticeship Week, I am traveling across the Delta visiting public, private, and non-profit partners sponsoring apprenticeships and job training programs to speak with students, instructors, and business leaders from various sectors on the role of apprenticeships and work-based training programs in revitalizing the Delta economy. As a federal-state partnership established to invest in economic and community development across the Delta, I am eager to learn firsthand from our stakeholders about how DRA can better serve small businesses, training providers, workers and jobs seekers in creating more opportunities for Delta communities to thrive in today’s global economy.

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Chris Caldwell is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority.

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