CLARKSDALE – The Mississippi Delta has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state and employs the least amount of people, according to Mississippi Labor Market Data. And its long history of enduring economic hardships, makes it challenging to attract and retain industry and jobs to the region.

With travel and tourism “being a major contributor to the state’s financial affairs and quality of life,” as noted in the Visit Mississippi’s  2017 tourism and economic impact report, a new partnership between a community college here and the Chawla Hotels, a parent company for 19 hotels in the Mississippi Delta, will provide workforce training to individuals wanting to get jobs in the hotel and hospitality industry.

After almost three years of trying to create a workforce development center with another community college, the Chawla Hotels, found an interested party – the Coahoma Community College Workforce Development Center, and it was because of their “facilities, manpower, and willingness … to work” with the Chawlas, said Suresh Chawla, president of the Chawla Hotels.

After eight months of constant communication, the two found common ground, establishing the first hotel management training center of its kind, representatives from both parties announced earlier this month.

Last year, the Mississippi’s travel and hospitality industry was responsible for approximately 90,000 jobs, the most the state has seen in over 12 years, producing $3 billion in labor income and $398 million in general fund revenues. Of those jobs, 945 were in Coahoma County, attributing $7.4 million in state and local fees.

And having a strong workforce development program that focuses on “giving citizens the skills that translate into the workforce” is a crucial component, said Scott Waller, president of the Mississippi Economic Council, in a phone call with Mississippi Today.

“… No matter what entity you go to now, there’s a strong emphasis placed on how we improve our workforce. How do we connect those who are trained for the jobs? We prepare them and we connect them to the jobs,” he said.

Community colleges play a huge role in workforce development, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Businesses as well as policymakers are looking to community colleges to help bridge the workforce gaps and educate their students, stated in a 2014 report on their website.

Waller, echoed this, saying community colleges and universities are vital to educating the workforce, adding that occupations that have the potential to increase your earnings include all education – K-12 all the way to a four-year university.

“Prepare, connect, sustain. … If there’s not a coordinated effort to get folks who are being trained in the workforce then we are not servicing those we are training,” said Waller. “Community colleges have stepped up to make workforce development one of their key elements of making sure we do what we need to do in the state of Mississippi to allow us to have that workforce of the future.”

The Chawla Hotels, Coahoma Community College collaboration here plans to do just that – prepare students for the workforce.

“It is imperative as well as critical to invest in employees by providing training that is inclusive, training that promotes loyalty, and training that pretty much is across the board that prepares the individual to succeed from the bottom end of the rom all the way to the top,” said Steven Jossell, executive director of the Coahoma Community College Workforce Development Center.

Jon Levingston, executive director of Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce added that “we in Clarksdale are grateful to them for creating this exciting program in our community.”

The Chawla Hospitality Academy is a four-week program for individuals interested in front-line, or entry level, hotel jobs or a career path in hotel management. Front-line jobs include front desk agents, housekeepers, and quality control inspectors.

Entry-level position starting pay ranges from $10 to $12 an hour, or about $27,000 a year. Hotel management positions vary from $49,000 to $68,000, according to Glassdoor, an online information source for job opportunities and salaries.

The classes for the academy begin on October 22 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. To register, candidates must visit their local WIN Job Center, and the center will send referrals to the CCC’s workforce center.

The Chawlas are investing anywhere between $30,000 to $40,000 annually for the program, said Suresh Chawla, adding that they aren’t looking to make money from this endeavor.

“We had no intent to make money off of (the academy),” Chawla said of when the idea came to be. “We want to invest in equipment, labor or whatever, and we came up with idea in 2015.”

Two instructors from Coahoma college will teach soft skills, customer service, basic hospitality and tourism, basic computer skills, job interview preparation, and how to fill out resumes and  job applications, said Shelley Cresswell Walker, Director of Emerging Brands and Innovation for Chawla Hotels.

Although this academy will produce employees at the entry level and possibly in management, Chawla noted this is just the first step. The plan is to eventually train people in technical maintenance positions because there is a nationwide shortage at limited service hotels, he added.

“My goal is to be able to create an entity here with this community college to the point where we can train and have companies come over here and do the training … and get people to get some type of certification,” he said.

‘There are jobs anywhere that pay $10 to $30 an hour in the industry.”

In order to match the jobs that are available in Mississippi Delta communities, Walker said it’s important to have a workforce in place to make sure those businesses are successful.

“For years and years, we talk about a workforce education and how important it is for the public and private sector to partner and utilize the skill sets on both sides, and this program is exactly that,” said Walker.

Over the last 20 or so years, Mississippi’s unemployment rate has fluctuated, remaining between five and seven percent for most years, but the state saw its highest peak in 2010, averaging 10.4 percent, according to the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. This number has significantly decreased to 4.7 percent as of August 2018, a 0.8 increase above the nation’s average.

Although the rates have seen a dip statewide, Coahoma County’s rate sits at 7.1 percent, the lowest it has seen in the over 20 years, but still among the highest across the state – ranking in the bottom 10 in the state.

Mississippi employs about 1.2 million people over four workforce development regions. Of those four areas, the Mississippi Delta employs the least and had the highest unemployment rate at 6.7 percent, according to August 2018 Mississippi Labor Market Data.

The Chawla brothers, Suresh and Dinesh, who serves as the CEO, have been doing business in the Delta since the early ‘90s, alongside their father, V.K., who died in 2015.

They currently operate 17 hotels with two set to open in 2019. One of those hotels under construction is in Cleveland, the Scion West End, a four-star hotel, that is being branded by the Trump Organization, the New York Times reported. Aside from that, the Chawla brothers are rebranding three of their hotels in Cleveland, Clarksdale, and Greenville, using the name American IDEA, according to the Mississippi Business Journal.

The second hotel set to open in 2019 is in Greenville, Tru by Hilton, and is being developed with a local family from the town.

Of the Chawla hotels operating, only five are managed by African-Americans, or 30 percent, which Suresh Chawla noted is better than the nation’s average of less than one percent.

“Hey, we must be doing something right, but wait a minute. We live in an area that’s predominately African-American, the Mississippi Delta. It’s not a good reflection on us. It’s not a good reflection on the industry,” he said.

“I want to change that and I’m hoping working with Coahoma Community College and the students that come here are able to work it up and able to reflect those percentages.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.