After Toyota opened in the Hill Country, skills training became a priority. ‘Everything we’re doing is built around the vision of building a world-class homegrown workforce,’ Tupelo leader says.
NEW ALBANY, Miss. — This handsome railroad town in the Mississippi hills carries a quiet lesson for Memphis.
Down the highway a few minutes, Toyota built a major plant that now employs 1,900 autoworkers.
It is the same plant Tennessee state officials tried to win a dozen years ago for the Memphis Regional Megasite.
Toyota instead put the $1.2 billion assembly line near Blue Springs, a hamlet located off Interstate 22 between New Albany and Tupelo.
Last month, the company’s executives showed off the latest version of the plant’s reason for being — the newly redesigned Corolla compact car.
Looking at the car, the autoworkers, the wooded countryside and New Albany, a well-preserved town where Nobel laureate author William Faulkner was born, led to a simple question.
What happened here after Toyota arrived? Because when you look around, you see Toyota didn’t set off a boom in New Albany.
Indeed, there is no single Toyota boom town anywhere in the Mississippi Hill Country. Autoworkers live as much as an hour away in every direction, said Sean Suggs, president of the plant.
But something else did happen here. Leaders redoubled the focus on vocational education. And that carries a lesson for the big city 100 miles away.
Memphis looks for jobs
Memphis is starved for high-wage jobs and factories.
Both can help as the city’s 652,000 residents shoulder a tax base strained by low wages and the loss of factory jobs over three decades of U.S. deindustrialization and automation (700 plants were open in Memphis and Shelby County in 2018, compared to 962 in 1985, federal labor reports show).
With the fear of crime and an idea schools are better elsewhere, black and white middle-class families steadily have trickled into well-kept suburbs such as Southaven, now Mississippi’s third-largest city with 54,000 residents.
To this day, the Megasite, a patch of countryside 32 miles from Memphis, remains farmland. Nor has any major new manufacturer built a plant in the city since Electrolux in 2013. The Swedish appliance maker recently announced its plant will close in 2020.
All this fuels a sense of urgency. You hear it from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland when he says the population must increase. You hear it from Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris when he talks of making neighborhoods robust. You hear it from North Memphis community activist Carnita Atwater who, just the other day, demanded the city invest in neglected neighborhoods rather than build bike paths and revitalize Downtown.
What you don’t hear is much talk about how Memphis can have both vital neighborhoods and a revitalized center city. Strickland might say the city’s new Memphis 3.0 plan aims for both, but up to now it has been usually one or the other, either/or, a division rooted in the strained tax base. Since too little tax money is available, the thinking goes, where do you invest? Downtown, New Chicago, East Memphis, Whitehaven?
This frame of mind feeds the idea that the purpose of economic development is to land that big factory. Get the good industrial wages in here, pump up the tax base, declare victory.
Toyota opens in Mississippi
When Toyota arrived, leaders in the Hill Country, a 150,000-population manufacturing region in the orbit of 38,000-population Tupelo, could have celebrated and sat back, content their tax base was anchored by an important company and its $70 million-plus annual payroll.
Instead of declaring victory and cutting taxes, the region’s leaders decided to invest in vocational education. What happened next was not immediately visible.
“We’ve probably seen a small spike in housing prices, but nothing major” because of Toyota, said Brad Franks, an associate broker in Tupelo at Morgan Realtors.
In New Albany, long-time merchant Travis Wiseman can’t precisely say how the town of 8,800 changed after Toyota opened in 2011.
He noticed high school grads who stay home are finding jobs. School funding has ticked up. Downtown looks wholesome. About 700 more people live in town compared to a decade back. Whether this all traces to Toyota, he can’t say, though on one point he’s certain: Faith in the future is clearly evident.
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“When they finally began hiring and training and the first car rolled off the line, we had a growing level of confidence,” said Wiseman, owner of Union Appliance & Furniture Store, a Main Street fixture since the mid-1970s.
Hill Country plans for jobs
Former Tupelo Public Schools administrator Kristy Luse remembers her surprise more than a decade ago. She sat in Hill Country leadership meetings. Toyota was coming. Civic leaders discussed the quality of life the entire region might experience into the 21st century.
“Our leadership was really forward thinking, looking more than 10 years out, asking, ‘What does our strategic plan look like?’ ” Luse said. “Rather than provide relief on property taxes, they wanted to enhance what was taking place in education. They knew the high-demand jobs in advanced manufacturing, information technology and medical services we’re going to be out there. They asked, ‘How are we going to fill those jobs and how do we fill them by getting our students into the pipeline?’ ’’
Toyota officials helped answer the question. In 2010, the Japanese automaker began making ten annual installments of $5 million expressly for education in Tupelo and adjacent Lee, Pontotoc and Union counties.
When the final payment comes in later this year, the fund will contain $50 million. Named the Toyota Wellspring Education Foundation, the fund is part of the nonprofit Create Foundation, a Tupelo civic leader. The Wellspring fund was given a definite purpose.
“The goal has been to expose kids to career pathways they may not have known about and enhance students with experiences like early childhood reading,’’ said Luse, vice president of the Wellspring Education Foundation.
By some measures, school improvements have been modest so far. For example, 82.6 percent of New Albany’s Class of 2017 graduated, bringing the high school almost even with Mississippi’s 83-percent graduation rate statewide, one study shows. Luse said leaders remain confident in the education strategy. Every year, a small part of the fund has been spent on special projects, including $1.8 million last year.
“Everything we’re doing is built around the vision of building a world-class homegrown workforce,” Luse said, noting 11 career coaches have been hired for the school districts in the three counties.
What’s more, $500,000 was awarded in science, technology, engineering and math grants. High-performance teachers received $200 appreciation bonuses. And 7,200 eighth graders in 17 counties served by Create Foundation were transported to Tupelo for the annual vocational orientation program.
Work Keys offers new language
To make sure the training pipeline is filled, high school students can take community college courses related to their skills training. And in some school districts, every high school junior takes the Work Keys test assessing their vocational skills.
Work Keys gets little attention in Memphis, though it’s relevant in factories. Engineers often can’t tell school curriculum strategists the precise skills needed on the plant floor. It’s as if engineers and teachers speak a different language.
Work Keys, a program administered by an Iowa nonprofit, provides the engineers and educators a clear way to define skills necessary on an array of jobs. By earning a Work Keys certificate, the student can assure employers they have sufficient skills to take on a job.
“With Work Keys, everybody is talking the same language,” Luse said. “It’s been a great passport for us between the worlds of business and industry and the world of education.”
By 2017, nearly 8,000 students and adults in the three counties had obtained Work Keys certificates, compared to about 3,500 in Memphis and Shelby County, which has almost seven times the population of the three Hill Country counties.
So does the Hill Country lesson for Memphis rest with Work Keys, vocational education, leadership?
It is all those, of course, and the idea that once you land the big plant you can’t simply declare victory.
Ted Evanoff, business columnist of The Commercial Appeal, can be reached at [email protected] and (901) 529-2292.
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