Mississippi brain drain hits home

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picofmap_braindrainOn June 28, the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s commissioners authorized a million-dollar contract to CDW-G LLC, an information systems provider headquartered in Vernon Hills, Ill.

The contract was for a Microsoft Enterprise agreement, licensing the product to the state for three years. Of the three competitive quotes received, CDW-G LLC had the lowest bid.

Looking at the bids, Commissioner Dick Hall asked, “There wasn’t a Mississippi company that could have bid on the contract?”

“There just isn’t a company in the state that has the license necessary to bid on this project,” responded Melinda McGrath, executive director of MDOT. “Just look at the number of computer science undergrads that are leaving our state.”

Hall’s question is becoming an increasingly common topic in the state.

On the same day as the MDOT commission meeting, the Humanities Council and Rethink Mississippi hosted the first of a three-part happy hour series hoping to generate conversation around why young people are leaving Mississippi.

“Mississippi is turning away a lot of people,” said Jake McGraw, who represented Rethink Mississippi as the series moderator. “We’re not doing similarly bad as states like Alabama. In this area, we are the outlier.”

McGraw points to the last five years of U.S. Census data: between 2010 and 2015, Mississippi’s population only grew an estimated 0.8 percent, half as much growth as the second lowest state, Alabama.

“It’s a multiplier,” McGraw said. “I think one problem is that for every person that leaves, it’s easier for the next person to leave.”

For Dean Jason Keith of Mississippi State University’s Bagley College of Engineering, job placement in the state is a goal of the college.

“Of our total graduate pool fifty percent get jobs inside Mississippi,” Keith said. “We are working very carefully with the Mississippi Development Authority in collaboration with Mississippi State University’s Office of Research and Economic Development to do more to attract more industries to our state. We have a good percentage, and we are working to push that to have more engineering-based workforce in Mississippi.”

Why is the state struggling to keep its computer science undergraduates?

A study produced by CompTIA, a public advocacy group for the information technology industry , found that in 2015, tech occupations continued to be highly demanded. Nationally, computer occupations that year had twice the employment rate as the rate for all jobs combined.

Large states like California and Texas dominated the rankings, offering high tech industry employment and high wages.

Though Mississippi did show up as top 3 for percent of women employed in the tech sector (38.4 percent), for both tech employment and tech wage, it scored toward the bottom overall. For example, the percent of private sector workers in tech fields in Mississippi was half of adjacent states like Alabama.

According to Dr. Donna Reese, department head of Mississippi State University’s Computer Science Department, the answer lies in the number of computational science companies in Mississippi.

Dr. Donna Reese, Mississippi State University

MSU

Dr. Donna Reese, Mississippi State University

“I don’t have any exact numbers, but for (Mississippi State University’s) college of engineering about half of our graduates stay in the state, but I would say in computer science its only about a quarter to a third that stay in state,” Reese said. “And that is probably because we don’t have the big IT industry that (students) can go work for. We lose a lot of students out of state to places like Fed-Ex and International Paper in Memphis and lots of places in the Huntsville, Alabama area.”

But Reese does note that Mississippi employers like Bomgar and C Spire are working to curb that trend.

“As a major employer, the demand and shortage for (information and technology) related skills and capabilities is a major problem in Mississippi,” said Dave Miller, senior manager of C Spire’s media relations. “Historically it hasn’t been encouraged as an area of academic focus, and you see that in the number of students receiving STEM related accreditation.

“We have an ongoing need for technology skills,” Miller said. “We are in a digital economy now. You are increasingly becoming reliant on the internet. The zeros and ones in the coding that go to make the internet run — (they are) the engine that makes the internet run.”

Keith said he thinks the state has worked “very hard to offer incentives to industry to put their facilities here. There is a lot of growing opportunity for students with all of our degrees to have jobs in Mississippi.

Reese is hopeful about pilot programs like Computer Science for Mississippi, a yearlong joint effort between Mississippi State University and the Mississippi Department of Education hoping to train students from 34 public school districts to be equipped to be technologically literate citizens who are prepared for computer science-related careers.

“I think getting more students at an early age exposed to what these kinds of careers are all about would help us to get a broader segment of the population aware of and interested in these kinds of careers,” Reese said. “That could lead to more of them staying and contributing back to the state economy.”

  • Otis

    Why are young, educated, people leaving Mississippi?
    Here’s my Cliff Notes version:

    1. Our underperforming economy, which is currently ranked as the worst in the nation.
    2. A lack of quality cultural/entertainment offerings.
    3. Our overly oppressive social structure & culture that hammers anything that looks like a nail.
    4. Our chronically underfunded educational system.
    5. Our corrupt political system. Forbes Magazine recently ranked Mississippi as the most corrupt state in the nation.
    6. Political leaders unable or unwilling to see beyond their political base.
    7. Chronic racism and bigotry
    8. Our poor national image (see # 7)
    9. The legislature (see # 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
    10. Phil Bryant and Tate Reeves (see # 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
    11. Laws like HB 1523 (see # 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

    • mississippidude

      Democrats were in control of Mississippi from 1876 to 2011. They did a TON of damage in 135 years. It’s going to take Republicans more than 5 years to undo the generations of dysfunction that have been handed to them. Patience, young grasshopper.

      • Otis

        I never mentioned the Republican or Democratic Party. However, those democrats who ran the state all those years were of the redeemer variety (Google Mississippi Redeemers) who were the forefathers of the blue dog democrats and Dixiecrats. It’s not the name of the party but underlying idiocy that is key.

        • Otis
          • mississippidude

            It is definitely a shift in ideology that occurred 5 years ago. Give them time. That’s fair, right?

          • Otis

            This shift in ideology didn’t occur 5 years ago as you seem to believe. The Conservative Democrats who ran Mississippi since 1817 began abandoning the Democratic Party in earnest when Nixon implemented the Southern strategy. This is what I was referring to when I referenced the importance of the underlying ideology in keeping Mississippi on the bottom versus the party label. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy

          • mississippidude

            So, conservative ideology is a problem? Tell that to Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and other states with conservative leadership that are growing like a weed. Pretty sure sticking to the Constitution isn’t the problem.

          • Otis

            You sure do like monolithic labels.

            I never said conservative political ideology was the problem in and of itself. I merely laid out the very basics of Mississippi political history in a brief comment. I highly recommend reading Mississippi Politics The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, Second Edition by Jere Nash and Andy Taggart. It’s available at The University Press.

      • Danny Lampley

        Note these Republicans. Not in 5 years. Not ever.

      • Mags King

        Huh, I could have sworn that since I moved here in 96, the Governor, our legislature and 2 US Senators were conservatives. Musgrove, Barbour, Bryant etc.
        MS will forever be #50 if its residents keep blaming others and playing the poor aggrieved victim. Are you a man? Then quit whining and do something.

  • DrumminD21311

    It’s because Mississippi still passes crap like HB 1523. Why would young people want to live in a state that still believes it’s 1861 (with a little flag on the state flag to prove it)?

    • mississippidude

      Ohhh, I see. So it’s the flag’s fault? I guess if we change that tomorrow… POOF! Problems gone.

      • Otis

        He never said it was the flag’s fault but merely highlighted it as a symptom of the underlying problem.

        • mississippidude

          It’s just part of our history, properly contextualized. And it’s a settled issue. Voted on 15 years ago.

          • Otis

            Just because it’s part of the state’s history doesn’t mean it represents every tax paying citizen. I support your right to display it on your person or property, but it’s not reflective of our state today.

          • DrumminD21311

            It actually may be reflective of the state, and that’s the problem. I changed my mind. Keep the flag there. Let it serve as a warning to anyone thinking about moving to or starting a business in Mississippi.

          • DrumminD21311

            A) Given that it’s on our state flag, it’s not “properly contextualized.” It’s not something that should be on the primary symbol for our state. It’s not what people should see and identify our state with. It’s something we should be ashamed of and only be shown to be demonized, the same way the Nazi flag is. You don’t see the Nazi flag on the flag of Germany.
            B) Few issues are ever “settled.” The flag can be altered at any time.

          • Dan Smith

            It is true that the nazi flag is outlawed in Germany, as is the salute. But the neo-nazi hate groups have found a substitute flag that gets the point across: the stars and bars.

          • Lloyd Dumas

            If MS flag had all to do with it’s failing we need to take it down. The flag is just one of the problems it is a place we can start by showing we are not resistant to change. I have advocated for years it should be removed unless we accept that this is who we are. The flag is associated with every hate group in America is this what MS have allowed itself to become.

          • Otis

            How is the current flag properly contextualized?

          • mississippidude

            The rebel flag is only a piece of the flag, just like the Confederacy is just a piece of our history. Contextualized. We can’t whitewash history.

          • Otis

            You need to look up “context”

          • Jay Ouzts

            Mississippidude is an example of why Mississippi will always be a cesspool.

      • DrumminD21311

        It would be the first step in a very long road to recovery. The first step in the twelve step program is admitting there’s a problem. I see you haven’t reached that step yet.

        • mississippidude

          No, I admit there’s a problem. But it doesn’t stem from a piece of cloth. That’s absurd.

          • DrumminD21311

            Where exactly did I say Mississippi’s problems stemmed from “a piece of cloth?” Are you familiar with what a strawman argument is?

          • mississippidude

            Did you not say the flag is the “first step in a very long road to recovery?” The flag is a piece of cloth, by the way.

          • Jay Ouzts

            The problem does not stem from “a piece of cloth”. It stems from backward attitudes. The piece of cloth is a just a symbol for that regressive thinking.

    • Towboat

      It’s not the flag that has done this to the state! It’s the idiots that have been put into ofc.

  • Monkfishy

    I completely agree with Otis & Drummin’. I have several young, college-educated friends who’ve left the state. Three are in healthcare professions, one is a teacher, and one is in the computer sciences field that the article focuses on. I have many more friends who are looking into moving after the passing of this year’s bills, including HB 1523. Besides seeming to be completely out of touch with the majority of the state’s residents, the government appears to be especially tone-deaf when it comes to the under-40 generation. The political base that keeps voting in the clowns in charge have a “love it or leave it” attitude. They’re now getting their wish. Younger people are becoming more progressive, as this state is fast becoming less so. The political direction of this state has real-life economic and quality of life consequences for many people. Those with the greatest opportunity to leave are doing so. Those of us who are left are, as Drummin’ pointed out, older, more tied down, and/or with fewer resources. Once again, welcome to the bottom, Mississippi.

    • mississippidude

      I’m (relatively) young and well-educated and I love it here. A law protecting religious rights isn’t pushing me away, I embrace it. The siren call that is pulling me away from Mississippi is more opportunities elsewhere–plain and simple. I require a higher salary and those jobs are few and far between here. Bring more industries with high paying jobs to the state and you’ve got me for life. You’ll be surprised how fast that solves the majority of our problems.

      • John

        Your comment about 5 years us wrong. Kirk Fordice was elected in 1991, a quarter of century ago. R’s have controlled large pieces of state government since.

        • mississippidude

          Large pieces, sure. But there has still been stodgy Democrat influence for years and years. Only recently has it been all R (with the exception of an AG who is overdue for retirement).

      • LostInUnderland

        Industries will not locate in Mississippi as long as we have bills like HB 1523. Did you notice what has happened in North Carolina? You may like the bill, but surely you recognize that it is an economic throttle??

      • Jay Ouzts

        “I’m (relatively) young and well-educated…” Your passionate defense of the Confederate flag leads me to wonder. Where did you get your degree? A box of stink bait?

  • Danny Lampley

    Get serious about providing a first class education to every child in this State, including fully funding MAEP (and funding plus more), each year, every year, and we will have an educated populace that is employable. Having employable people draws business and industry. Having business and industry and employment produces tax-payers and more income into the state treasury. More tax-payers and more state revenue helps us pay for infrastructure and to improve the quality of life for all our residents. Having education and employment opportunities helps vitiate the need for prisons and welfare. We are never going to break the cycle until we get serious about education.

    • Bethany Theilman

      Regrettably it would take 20 years for the education to show up in the economy if it happened today.

      • Danny Lampley

        I wish, I hope, you are wrong; but you are probably right. It is so disheartening to consider that we’ve already done that 20 years — well, about 19, since passage of the MAEP act. We’re going to lose another generation and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done to change that.

    • LostInUnderland

      But if we educate our populace, we will no longer be able to pass bills like HB 1523..

  • Jay Ouzts

    If Mississippi wants to attract 21st century jobs, Mississippians are going to have to abandon their 19th Century mindset. That means quit honoring the Confederacy and stop injecting Jesus into everything. People outside the state perceive the state as being largely racist religious nuts, and Mississippians – as a whole – do little to prove them wrong.

  • Richard Fairchild

    I was making $22,000 a year in an IT position in Mississippi. Rent was $800. I moved to Atlanta, pay about the same amount in rent. Now I make $60,000 a year. No brainer to move out. Also don’t have to worry about religious interference in Georgia as much as I did in Mississippi.