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.”