Mississippi’s brand new workforce development office has awarded nearly $1 million to a Gulf Coast college program that trains diesel technicians, marking the first time Accelerate Mississippi has publicly flexed its authority over state job training funds. 

Ryan Miller, Executive Director of the Office of State Workforce Development. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The award signals a shift in how the state is spending workforce training dollars under the guidance of Ryan Miller, Accelerate Mississippi’s executive director. Miller’s office oversees tens of millions of dollars, including a $25 million pot collected via an unemployment insurance tax on businesses for the state’s 15 community colleges. But that oversight just began in July.

“We are trying to be more targeted and specific toward the areas where we are focusing funding and resources,” Miller said. “Where are there industry sectors that appear to have a large amount of vacancies with a large need that are also professions that pay above the average wage?” 

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which will use the money to grow the capacity of its diesel technician program from 20 students to 40, is the first program to make a proposal to Miller’s office and be awarded money. Miller has designated $10 million of the $25 million pot for the office’s grant program to target in-demand jobs.

That money is part of the state’s Workforce Enhancement Training — or “WET” — fund. It had previously been the charge of the state’s Community College Board, which is still involved in processing the funds. 

Miller’s new office, however, was given freedom and flexibility under legislation passed in 2020 to direct those funds in ways the college board could not when it manned the money alone.

The board’s former director, Andrea Mayfield, told Mississippi Today last year that the fund’s guidelines favored those already working and relied upon employers making requests. That’s no longer the case. 

“In essence, we’ve taken the position that, in addition to direct requests from employers, we need to focus our WET fund resources upon those career opportunities in which there is a discernible need and could result in increased wages for Mississippians,” Miller said. 

A Mississippi Today report last year found that a quarter of the roughly $23 million spent through the Community College Board covered businesses’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration training. In most cases employers are required to provide such training, which doesn’t typically result in new skills. 

Miller said as his office looks over past expenses in its new role, it will have to ask hard questions. 

“Does stand-alone safety training meet the requirement of enhancing productivity?” Miller posed. “In most cases, probably not.” 

Kell Smith, the interim director of the Community College Board, said the body has welcomed Miller’s direction. 

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s grant totals $941,701. The grant will cover $500,000 in new equipment and $288,000 in scholarship money among other expenses to train technicians to maintain and repair diesel engines. 

Mississippi graduated 106 diesel technicians per year during a four-year period ending in 2020, according to state data. Yet, the average number of positions open per year in the state during that period was 526. 

The Gulf Coast college created the program in spring 2020 in direct response to businesses that were grappling with the gap in qualified candidates to fill open technician jobs. The college reported in its application that every student in the first cohort found a job in the field. 

“Our college is thrilled to take on this challenge and in return create economic opportunity for residents of the gulf coast,” Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College President Mary Graham said in a statement. 

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