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Mississippi workforce nears pre-pandemic levels, but experts say real growth will take time

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In the last three months on record, Mississippi has gained nearly 15,000 jobs, pushing the state’s number of working residents closer to where it was before the pandemic.

The Magnolia State has recouped nearly 83% of the jobs it lost at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Jobs in manufacturing, trade and trucking, construction and the service industry brought back the most positions in recent months. But the “normal” Mississippi is approaching in terms of workforce is still behind the rest of the nation in terms of wages and general worker participation.

For Labor Day, Mississippi Today took a close look at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to not only measure the ground the state has gained back since the pandemic began, but also what it will take to move the state and its average wages forward.

“Some jobs are being filled, and it’s good to see pre-pandemic type numbers,” said Ryan Miller, the director of workforce development office Accelerate Mississippi. “But it’s also an honest and real assessment to say we are not where we want to be.”

With a 55.9% labor participation rate, Mississippi’s number of residents actively working or seeking work is about where it was before the pandemic. But that rate still leaves Mississippi in nearly last place for labor participation in the country, according to the latest data from July. The state’s average individual income was only $24,509 in 2019, according to the Census Bureau.

Still, the state has steadily added new jobs at a higher rate than the national average since the beginning of the pandemic. Mississippi had 41,000 more jobs in the state this July than it did in the July prior.

“We’re getting closer to where we were before the pandemic,” said state economist Corey Miller. “It’s been a good turnaround when you look at how steep the job losses were in just two months last year.”

As two of Mississippi’s larger job sectors, both manufacturing and transportation, trade and utilities have added almost 14,000 jobs collectively in the last 12 months. Both categories also had the largest gains in July, the most recent month of data available for Mississippi.

Scott Kilpatrick, interim director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Manufacturing Excellence, said his graduates in the spring of 2020 had a hard time landing jobs when school ended.

Typically, placements for students who graduate from the program are near 100%, he said. After a few months, hiring began to settle into more of an equilibrium.

“Customer demands seem to be really strong,” he said. “The issues (manufacturers) are facing have been related to supply chains and also with manpower in terms of a skilled labor force.”

The shortage of computer chips, for example, has stalled out Toyota’s Mississippi factory in Blue Springs. While the Japan-based automaker didn’t lay off any of its U.S. workers, it recently had no-production days in which workers took time off or conducted jobs in the factory unrelated to car making.

Despite the challenges, Mississippi manufacturers added 1,100 jobs in July alone.

The sector including trade, transportation and utilities covers a large array of jobs from commercial trucking to air conditioning repair services. But with the growth of online shopping and delivery, the demand for truckers and jobs in delivery logistics has only been heightened.

Mississippi was already short on drivers; COVID-19 only exacerbated those needs.

“Most drivers stayed on the road” after the start of the pandemic, said Mississippi Trucking Association President Hal Miller. “But it was hard to draw new people into the industry. Most trucking companies are still in hiring mode to maintain the pace they have right now.”

The average age of truckers trends on the older side, and they’re aging out of their positions, he said.

“These guys are making big money, too,” Hal Miller said. “Right off the bat making $80,000 a year.”

But the trucking association president said Mississippi needs to do more in general to show students the vocational options out there with high-paying salaries. He lauded Arkansas and South Carolina for creating a traveling exhibition to teach high school students and others about the types of trucking, vocational, and tech jobs that pay well following short-term vocational training.

The new workforce development director agrees.

“So much in what we are finding in Mississippi is people just don’t know what’s out there,” Ryan Miller said. “People don’t know about opportunities right there or what programs are available to get them to that high-paying job.”

Outside of the vocational field, Mississippi has added back 12,900 service industry jobs in the past 12 months.

But the service industry is still where the most job losses are relative to before the pandemic.

The state economist Corey Miller wonders if those jobs will ever come back and how many of those workers have begun seeking out — or already found — higher paying jobs. Across all industries, University Research Center has forecasted strong wage growth in Mississippi over the next two years.

The center, which houses the state economist, also predicts the state’s economy entering 2022 to be stronger than it was the prior year.

But it’s ultimately getting more Mississippians into higher paying, in-demand jobs that will make the biggest impact on the state’s economic outlook over the next few years.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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