Raj Shaunak and the Economic Boom in Eastern Mississippi

It's one thing to draw high-skill, high-wage jobs to a place that has historically lacked opportunities. It's something else altogether to find people qualified to fill them. A local answer to a national question.
Raj Shaunak, who was born in Kenya and educated in England. He built a successful business in Mississippi and is now training students there. (East Mississippi Community College)

In our previous chronicles of economic, industrial, and educational recovery in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi, my wife Deb and I discussed the roles of Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan in helping attract major modern industries to the region, and of Chuck Yarborough, Thomas Easterling, and others in helping build the (public) Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, which got started in the 1980s with the guidance of then-governor William Winter. Links to some of those previous reports, and a Marketplace broadcast from the Golden Triangle, are at the end of this piece.

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But when you bring thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs to an area with very low median income, poorly ranked schools, and a history of farming and low-end factories rather than advanced manufacturing, you raise another question. Where are companies going to find the right people to do these jobs? Sure, lots of people need work. But the ones who have been laid off from packing houses or "cut and sew" minimum wage garment plants, or have not held steady jobs at all, may not be ready to run a billion-dollar modern steel mill or an Airbus helicopter factory.

This is where East Mississippi Community College, or EMCC, comes in.

Center for Manufacturing Technology Excellence, at East Mississippi Community College. Photo by Tommy Andres of Marketplace.

                                                                 ***

In many stops before Mississippi, we've been impressed by the emphasis on, and seeming success of, programs for "career technical" education. For example, the Camden County High School in far southern Georgia—or, with a different emphasis the Elementary School for Engineering in Greenville, South Carolina. Back at the dawn of time, when I was in high school, "vocational ed" had a patronizing, loser tone. Today's "career technical" programs, in contrast, aspire to help people avoid the minimum-wage service-or-retail trap with better-paid jobs as skilled repair technicians, in health care, in construction and design, in advanced modern factories, in law enforcement, and in other "living wage" categories.

Brenda Lathan, part of the Golden Triangle's 
economic development team, while being
interviewed for Marketplace.

Many of these schools operate on an (admirable) public-good principle. They have no way of knowing where the students they're training will end up working 10 or 20 from now. So they proceed on the belief that it will be better for the region to have a larger pool of better-skilled workers. (That way, some large corporation might open a branch there, and new startup businesses might arise.) And it is obviously a plus for the students to have more skills and options, whether they stay nearby or leave. 

EMCC's current ambitions are more targeted. The good jobs are coming to its "Golden Triangle" region, thanks to the efforts of its promoters. The big new factories have already brought in thousands of higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. An enormous plant from Yokohama Tires, now under construction, will bring more. The challenge is to prepare local people to qualify for them. 

This is the challenge Raj Shaunak has undertaken.

                                                           ***

Raj's family is Indian; he was born in Kenya; and as a teenager he moved with his family to England, where he went to college. I will refer to him as Raj because that is how everyone seems to know him locally. When he picks up the phone he says slowly and in a deep voice, "Rajjjj ... " or "This is Raj..." His accent is an arresting combination of UK-Indian and Mississippi-Southern.

In 1972 Raj paid a visit to Mississippi to see his brother, who was then at Mississippi State University in the Golden Triangle city of Starkville. He ended up staying and building a very successful manufacturing business with other family members. 

In 1989 the family sold the business, and Raj was freed from workaday economic concerns. On October 31 of that year he dramatically threw his wristwatch into the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway outside Columbus, and began the next stage of his life. (Me: "Raj, could I call you at 11am tomorrow?" Raj: "Jim, I have no watch, call me when you would like.") Two years later, he was teaching adult-education courses and math. By 1994 he had begun what is now his major commitment: "workforce development," or preparing people in the community for the jobs that the economic development commission was trying to attract.

Here is what the results look like in practice:

• EMCC has brochures, billboards, ads, and other publicity (like what you see above) all over town, letting people know about its programs.

• Students who enroll go through what Raj calls "skills-based pathways," whose details I won't go through now but are suggested by some of the charts below. The essential point, according both to Raj and to the students I spoke with at EMCC (and alumni I met at several factories), is that students are first assessed to see what they know and what they don't; they're brought up to speed in areas of weakness; and they're exposed to the skills, practices, and disciplines required in modern industrial work. These include precision measurement, ability to read graphs and blueprints, "lean manufacturing" procedures, teamwork and flexibility, trouble-shooting, "continuous improvement," and all the other traits you've heard about if you've visited any advanced factory in Japan, Europe, China, or the US.

•  In the EMCC training facilities, students work on real versions, or sometimes scaled-down models, of the machinery and products being made in the local factories. I saw them dealing with real engines from the nearby PACCAR factory, and real computer-controlled machine tools.

• I heard about but didn't see working models of the Yokohama Tire assembly line, preparing candidates for the 500 jobs the company plans to offer when the first stage of its new facility opens up. As part of its comprehensive training deal with Yokohama, EMCC hopes to prepare as many as 5,000 candidates for those positions. "What happens to the ones who don't get hired?" Raj asks, anticipating the question. "They will have much higher skills, and they will be more marketable—either when Yokohama opens its next phase [another 500 jobs], or anywhere else."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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