| By Billy Davis
A labor survey of Panola County found a workforce here lacking in training and numbers but nonetheless capable of supplying workers for an automotive assembly plant.
The study’s author, The Wadley Donovan Group, found that an auto plant and its suppliers could staff its facilities with up to 6,340 qualified workers in the first year of production, a number drawn from a 60-mile pool of 105,673 likely applicants.
An automotive plant would employ between 2,500 and 3,000 workers with typical starting salaries of $18 an hour, Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons told The Panolian in a November 10 story.
An executive summary of the labor study funneled the 120-page study into 19 pages of "key assets" and "key challenges." Many of the "assets" are boosted by including workers within a 60-mile, 22-county radius of Como, the location of a 1,700-acre mega-site. Several of the "challenges," meanwhile, stem from an underskilled and undermanned Panola County labor force.
One asset notes that 65,851 workers are employed in manufacturing jobs within 60 miles of Como. That number exceeds the national average and would offer a mega-industry a "skilled resource" of experienced workers.
One challenge is that Panola County boasts a low number of high school graduates, which is likely why the basic skill levels of job applicants – math, reading comprehension, written communication – is described by surveyed employers as "borderline satisfactory." Basic computer skills are also lacking, the summary also stated.
"The main concern in the study is the need to enhance our workforce," Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons told The Panolian Monday.
Improving workforce training has already started – at least to some degree, the Partnership CEO also said.
Simmons said he recently organized a monthly roundtable meeting of management from existing Panola County industries. From those first meetings, he said, came a unified call for a better-trained workforce.
The industry leaders met this month with South Panola vo-tech director Billy Smith, and a representative of Northwest Community College is set to meet with the managers in January.
The labor summary noted the presence of Northwest and labeled it the "primary provider" of technical training for a future mega-industry at the Como site. The study also suggested, however, that employers rarely use regional community colleges for recruitment or worker training.
A summary of the study was placed into the hands of some local leaders November 2 when Wadley Donovan delivered its final presentation to the Partnership’s executive committee.
Panola Partnership and Entergy Mississippi split the cost of the $40,000 study, hoping that the investment could help lure a major industry to the Como mega-site.
Entergy plans to launch a heavy marketing campaign for the Como site beginning in January, 2007, with a goal to recruit a mega-industry by the end of the year.
The Como site nearly snagged a Toyota assembly plant in 2003.
With Entergy set to begin its marketing campaign in January, Simmons said the goal for Panola County leaders should be to assess the county’s strengths and weaknesses then begin addressing them by the first of the year.
Simmons said two starting points are planning for coming growth in the county and beginning the installation of infrastructure in the new county-wide public utility district.
After local legislators received authority from the state to do so, county leaders approved the public utility district last year with plans to supply sewer and water to Como’s industrial site with lines originating in Batesville.
Regarding the planning, Simmons said the board of supervisors and the City of Batesville will hopefully work together in coming months to address land-use goals.
"We need to identify those areas of growth right now and at least start to put some regulations in place," Simmons said. "If there’s no vision for the future, you’ll look back in 10 years and say, ?I wish we had planned better.’"
And Panola County is apparently growing at a fast clip. The labor study showed that Panola experienced above-average growth from 1990 to 2000, increasing in population by 14.3 percent compared to 10.5 percent for the state and 13.2 percent nationally.
Is Panola really poised to land a major auto industry?
Simmons told a meeting of Batesville Rotarians last week that the Como site trumps its mega-site competitors in the state, the Well Spring site near Tupelo and the Kiwani site near Meridian. (See related story, page A1).
"The Como site is probably one of the better sites in the state," Leonard Morris, a state legislator from Batesville, told The Panolian last week.
Morris said the marketing of the Como site is "on the radar screen" after The Panolian announced the Como site’s certification in its November 10 publication.
"People are starting to talk about it," Morris said. "Now we’ve got to get to work because, if we intend for it to be a mega-site, we need more to offer than just raw land."