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University-wide focus on economic,...

University-wide focus on economic, workforce development at the heart of Southern Miss

By: Phil Hardwick - March 25, 2024

(Photo from Southern Miss website)

  • Business columnist Phil Hardwick wraps up his three-part series on entrepreneurship and economic development efforts at Mississippi’s Big 3 universities by talking with Southern Miss Trent Lott Center Director Brian Henson.

In this three-part series, we focus on entrepreneurship and economic development programs at the state’s three major universities. 

In this final installment, we visited with Brian Henson, Director of The Trent Lott National Center (TNLC) for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship at The University of Southern Mississippi. The Center is designed to provide a university-wide focus on economic development by providing training and research and serving public entities, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals.  

The True South Economic Development Course has been around for a long time and is considered the foundational economic development course. Who can attend, when is the next course, and what are the primary objectives of the course?

The True South Basic Economic Development Course (BEDC) will celebrate its 31st anniversary this year. The upcoming course is September 23-26, 2024, at The University of Southern Mississippi Trent Lott National Center. The four-day course is $650 and can be taken for graduate credit through the Southern Miss Master of Science in Economic Development program. The course is accredited by the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) as part of the required coursework to apply for IEDC’s Certified Economic Developer (CEcD) program.

Brian Henson

It focuses on the core components of the practice of economic development, including managing an economic development organization, business retention and expansion, workforce development, economic development finance, entrepreneurial and small business development, and community development. A crucial part of the True South is the development of professional connections. 

Typical attendees include chamber of commerce, economic, and community development organization professionals, elected and appointed officials (who receive 4 CMO credits), real estate brokers and developers, bankers, utility providers, and community volunteers. 

The Advanced Economic Development Course is another course you offer. Tell us about it, and how it differs from the True South course.

The Advanced Economic Development Leadership program is a national advanced course for senior economic development professionals. It was designed to follow the basic course and provide a deeper dive into key topics. New Mexico State, Texas Christian University, and Valdosta State are partners with USM in the program, and there are over 200 graduates. It is designed to be interactive by combining both instructional content and a collaborative learning environment between class participants. Classes hear from experts in related topics within economic development but also have the opportunity to bounce issues and problems off of other class participants to develop best practices.

We have also incorporated a segment into the program whereby site consultants join our classes to discuss what they need from communities. We also allow participants to engage them on how to provide better products for the site consultants as they help companies locate their next facility.

In addition to those, USM has a master’s degree in Economic Development. Do you get many out-of-state students/participants in these courses?

Founded in 1980, the Southern Miss MSED program is the first and best-known graduate program for preparing students for careers in economic development. The program is focused on improving communities through business attraction, retention, and entrepreneurship development in the context of localities and states in the US. The program’s mission is to educate students for successful careers in economic development organizations. The program attracts a mix of in-state and out-of-state students and a few international students. The program is about half traditional students and the other half working professionals. 

The Graduate Certificate in Economic Development (GCED) has become a popular alternative, allowing students to earn an MBA with a GCED. The GCED involves the core classes of economic development data analytics and theory, business attraction and retention, entrepreneurship and small business development, and real estate and land use planning.  The University of Texas-Dallas plans to add the USM GCED to its MBA program. 

In addition to economic development courses, what other activities is the USM College of Business and Economic Development involved in?

At the core of our College’s mission lies a dedication to nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit, a commitment evident in our strategic efforts to drive applied economic development both on our campus and across the state. A prime example is The Hatchery—a vibrant hub that connects and supports our diverse community of entrepreneurs and innovators at USM. Driven by the potential in every student, The Hatchery provides an ecosystem of resources, mentorship, and experiential learning to foster a culture of innovation for all. 

Another noteworthy initiative is the Southern Entrepreneurship Program (SEP), a source of great pride. This statewide youth endeavor is focused on cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset in our future leaders. Since its inception in 2007, SEP has actively engaged with over 7,000 high school students and provided training to 350 educators, establishing a robust pipeline of entrepreneurial talent and interest throughout Mississippi.

Looking at the year ahead, what are the biggest challenges facing Mississippi’s economic development efforts?

Based on what you have heard throughout the media, I will probably sound like a broken record here, but I feel the workforce will be the biggest challenge this year and in the future. Skilled workforce, to be more specific. Labor participation is crucial, and we have a challenge getting people off the sideline and back in the game.  Not only getting them back in the game but also equipping them with the skillsets needed to thrive. I know our local communities work tirelessly on ways to reengage sidelined workers, whatever their reason is for being sidelined.  The more skilled workers are ready to work in the labor pool of a community, the better shot you have at your existing companies expanding and recruiting for new industries.

Additionally, continuing to attract higher-paying jobs is extremely important in retaining our young talent. We need our young professionals to stay in Mississippi, and having career opportunities that are attractive to them is vital. It also helps young professionals or entrepreneurs with new ideas to open their businesses and create career opportunities for others.

I wish I could tell you there is a magic cure for this, but there is not one. It is going to take the whole state, from our elected officials to local industry and community champions, working together to improve our workforce. I believe our state workforce group Accelerate MS is doing an amazing job revamping its workforce training efforts to provide better, faster, and more tailored workforce solutions for communities and industries. The career coaches recently installed in many of our school districts will pay huge dividends in the future by helping those high school students figure out what field they want to go into and how to make it a reality.

The other big challenge is infrastructure development. I think the state is making progress in strategically investing in infrastructure such as energy assets, transportation and logistical assets, and strategic industrial sites. There is more to be done, and our state officials are working hard to make that happen. Mississippi can be a major player worldwide with these assets, and continuing to develop these assets further to not just stay on par with our competing states but to be superior is important as we move forward.  

About the Author(s)
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Phil Hardwick

Phil Hardwick is an award-winning business columnist and semi-retired economic developer. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Millsaps College Else School of Management for many years. He has taught over 1,000 students, written over 800 columns, written 11 books and assisted over 100 communities and organizations with strategic planning. In February 2016 he was inducted as a Lifetime Member of the Mississippi Economic Development Council.