Dropout rate harms business recruitment, Pilgrim says|[12/10/06]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 10, 2006

&#8220The dropout rate is a bother,” Warren County Port Commission executive director Jim Pilgrim said. &#8220We’re not in the best column.”

Since Pilgrim took over the reins of the commission that operates the Port of Vicksburg and Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex for Warren County, the retired Entergy executive has observed one company after another correlate dropout rates with the kind of labor pool they can expect to choose employees from.

While statistics on dropout rates vary between individual district and the Mississippi Department of Education, depending on variables such as those with GEDs, home-schoolers and whether those who don’t graduate in four years are counted, the numbers are still stark – about a third of the Vicksburg Warren School District student body of 9,200 are likely to drop out in four years.

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&#8220You can bet your boots the HR departments of those companies are looking at that,” Pilgrim said.

Another part of Pilgrim’s role in economic development here is heading up the Warren County Economic Development Foundation. Partnering with the Mississippi Development Authority, Mississippi Business Finance Corporation or Entergy, part of the group’s job is to woo businesses that contact the port authority about moving a plant here or expanding an existing part of their operations.

Among the eight to 10 companies that Pilgrim said visited here in November alone – most notably, he said, in the alternative fuel and manufacturing sectors – two were on their second visits. This is typically when things such as quality of the labor pool and job-training programs are examined.

Even with companies that promise jobs in heavy manufacturing, skills that come with having diplomas are of paramount importance.

&#8220The competition is so keen for business expansion and for new businesses. You’ve got to stay pro-business to be competitive with other states,” Pilgrim said.

Equally important in attracting businesses to Vicksburg and Warren County is affordable housing, something Pilgrim said is a &#8220big need.”

&#8220One question they’ll ask is, ‘How many new roofs do you have?’,” Pilgrim said, referring to housing starts.

According to the 2000 Census, the fastest-growing segment of owner-occupied homes are in the $100,000 to $200,000 range – in many cases, just beyond affordability for a county with a median household income hovering between $30,000 and $35,000.

Another acute factor in the housing landscape here is builders’ trend toward building larger homes instead of smaller ones, a move that usually means more profits for the builders.

&#8220The market is there,” said Doug Upchurch of Jones & Upchurch Inc. Real Estate Agency, adding that a home in Vicksburg recently appraised at $87,500 stayed on the market all of two days.

&#8220But they’re just not building homes in the 1,200 to 2,000 square-foot range,” Upchurch said. Some of the gap in that area has been filled by modular homes, he said.

A sizeable chunk of Vicksburg and Warren County’s labor force at the larger employers – about 23 percent, according to Census figures and Pilgrim’s recent estimate – commute from surrounding counties in Mississippi and parishes in Louisiana.

The challenge to get more of them to move here and add to the tax base is made tougher by the current state of personal finances.

&#8220We’ve had more foreclosures than we’ve ever had,” Upchurch said. &#8220People’s credit is horrible. They can’t qualify for the loans.”

According to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based independent research firm The Brookings Institution that sampled anonymous consumer credit reports between 1999 and 2004, the average credit score in counties measured in the South was 635, more than 20 points lower than the average measured for all consumers analyzed.