JACKSON – Napoleon Miller spent his childhood as a ward of the state of Mississippi, bouncing from home to home and school to school.
“I grew up in Mississippi’s foster care system,” Miller said. “I decided to stop going to high school and started Job Corps. When I got there, I started hanging out with the wrong people and I got kicked out.”
It’s a story with much happier present than past, however, thanks to an innovative program in Mississippi community colleges that’s creating more stories like Miller’s.
Miller, 35, of Jackson, worked odd jobs cutting yards and in foodservice before pursuing his GED at Hinds Community College. “When I was almost finished with my GED, my navigator told me about the MI-BEST program. This was an opportunity for me to continue working on my GED and start training for a career.”
Miller shared his story of success in the program with state lawmakers Tuesday, Feb. 14 during a hearing on the program before the House Workforce Development Committee.
“I found out that I would make more money and have more opportunity for work if I majored in Industrial Maintenance,” he told the committee, referring to the expansive program at Hinds which combines an array of disciplines to prepare students for modern-day manufacturing equipment. He graduated in December 2016 with a career certificate and is working toward an Associate of Applied Science degree from Hinds.
MI-BEST is Mississippi’s version of the nationally recognized Integrating Basic Education and Skills Training program, or I-BEST, and originated in Washington state. The program kicked off a few years ago with federal funds and allows adult students to train for a job skill while earning their GED high school equivalency certificate at the same time. In Mississippi, MI-BEST was implemented at each state community college back in the fall thanks to a $6 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Students are prepared to be job-ready in six months to a year, train in high-demand areas and earn national certifications.
At Hinds, program coordinators have worked closely with those in the burgeoning Industrial Maintenance area of study, said David Creel, district director of Manufacturing Training.
“I work with industry to understand what their needs are, with career-tech deans to understand what the program provided them, and with our MI-BEST and Adult Basic Education teams to get those students to get those basic skills, earn credentials, then go to work,” Creel said.
The program’s impact on the state’s workforce is borne out in data on the skill level of working-age adults. Middle-skill jobs, which require training beyond high school but not a four-year degree, account for 58 percent of Mississippi’s jobs. The MI-BEST program being implemented at all 15 community colleges in the state aims to close this skills gap.
“It’s not uncommon in other states to hear employers say they have job offers available but they don’t have workers to fill them,” said Brooke DeRenzis, state network director of Washington, D.C.-based National Skills Coalition. “Our organization is really focused on closing that skill gap.” DeRenzis told the committee Mississippi was one of 18 states with a version of I-BEST or a similar program in place to combat such gaps.
Industries looking into the program’s success rate to fill their job openings are diverse and span markets inside and outside the state, community college officials told committee members.
“We’re fortunate to be able to offer this to our Adult Education students early on,” said Dr. Scott Alsobrooks, vice president for Economic and Community Development at Pearl River Community College. “Our geographical location really helps us, situated in the Pine Belt but we also cater to the New Orleans and Gulf Coast markets. So, we have recruiters that are petro-based, we have them coming from the shipbuilding market, and we also have the metal trades. The selling point to our students is having a lot of career opportunities.”
“We’ve had enormous success with this program,” said Dr. Jesse Smith, president of Jones County Junior College, during the hearing. “The focus of which is to go to the underprepared student who doesn’t have a high school degree, and at the same time they’re getting their high school equivalency, help them earn a workforce credential.”
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