Monroe County, located in northeastern Mississippi between Lee and Lowndes County, bordering the Alabama line, is a land of many opportunities. It is a rural area with a population of approximately 36,000, and its largest cities are Amory and Aberdeen.
The Monroe County Chamber of Commerce (MCCC) serves as the economic and community development agency for the county and it provides resources to its large membership base of local businesses and industry representatives. It advocates for the needs of small businesses, recruits new enterprises, and supports the existing industries to help with expansions and workforce development.
The MCCC assists businesses and citizens discover the many opportunities available in Monroe County. It establishes valuable collaborative efforts between various organizations in both private and public sectors to improve the quality of life through economic and community development for the county.
Workforce development alone is a full-time undertaking for the MCCC, which is made up of only four employees. It engages with the community college system, the career technical center, and the local high schools to form useful partnerships that lead to collaborative efforts that benefit the county as a whole. “We are mainly just working to connect those dots and truly make sure our workforce and career patterns are cohesive with the industry here,” says Chelsea, Executive Director of the MCCC.
The manufacturing industry leads the economy in Monroe County particularly in the chemical sector, furniture manufacturing, and metal fabrication, with other industry sectors including the manufacture of boats and golf club shafts. The county’s economy is also backed up by a robust healthcare industry.
Approximately 75 percent of the population in Monroe County is qualified at a high school level, which is higher than the average in the area, and demonstrates that there is an employable workforce available. In order to support students looking to join the local workforce, the MCCC has developed programs with the Monroe County Career Technical Center that allow students to gain experience in the technical world and get a head start on their potential career path. The county hopes to retain as many students as possible by giving them the tools and experience to thrive in the local economy. Four-year university degrees are great, but they are not for every student, and those students should be aware of the opportunities right in their backyard.
All the schools in the Monroe County school district participate in dual enrollment options for students that allow them to receive credits for community college while still in high school. “There are advanced placement courses, too, that can count towards college credit give those students a competitive advantage, or a step ahead, to be better prepared for college. When they enroll as a freshman, they already have college hours,” says Chelsea.
The MCCC has also implemented “Industry Insider” – an event in October to raise awareness about the ins and outs of modern manufacturing processes and the products that are being created in the county. “People drive by manufacturing facilities every day but they truly don’t know all the facets and levels of different employees that are there, the opportunities, or maybe even what they manufacture,” says Chelsea.
The idea behind Industry Insider is to begin with the educators by exposing them to the reality of manufacturing, because teachers spend a significant amount of time with students and help to shape their future goals. “This was our first year and it was really successful, we got a lot of great feedback and we hope to continue to do that and really dig deeper,” says Chelsea. “It’s very important to have our instructors exposed to manufacturing.”
Teachers from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, in all of the county’s school districts, toured various manufacturing facilities to get hands-on experience and to learn how to work with the county to form workforce committees. The nearby Itawamba Community College in Lee County shared a video with the MCCC comparing the different incomes of university graduates and technical college graduates. When it was shown to the instructors, they were surprised and inspired by the numbers. “What we really want is that collaborative effort from the schools, because they understand our students and understand their curriculum.”
The main lesson learned from Industry Insider was just how much the current perception of community colleges and career tech centers lags behind the perceived value of a four-year university degree. It is necessary, now more than ever, to ensure that the community at large understands that manufacturing is no longer dirty, dark, and dangerous. In fact, it has become a very lucrative and satisfying career option in Monroe County.
As community leaders, the MCCC aims to change the mindset about career path opportunities and reveal the true nature of the manufacturing industry to students at a younger age. There are too many young adults with student loans that have yet to find a long term career, who were unaware of the other choices that were available to them.
The MCCC focuses heavily on working with its school system because its students are the future of the county. It can be a difficult partnership, since schools operate by curriculum and funding that takes time to approve, and the manufacturing needs of the county are very immediate. A successful workforce development program is one that is willing to adapt and change to the industry needs, regardless of the school policies in place.
Monroe County is a great place to live at a low cost with affordable healthcare and exceptional schools and it is positioned perfectly between two counties that have robust economies and communities in close proximity. Residents have the benefit of living the simple life in rural Mississippi while also being within a 90 minute drive of the big city life full of various entertainment and sporting events. Birmingham, AL, Memphis TN, and Nashville, TN are all within a day from Monroe County for explorers looking to experience an entirely different lifestyle.
The people of Monroe County are proud to be a part of the community and truly appreciate the area for its many great qualities. The charm of the county lies in its welcoming nature and the degree to which people enjoy where they live. “I think, to love a place, you have to know its weaknesses first. Make no mistake – we have a lot of improvement as far as community development and economic development to come – but at the end of the day, it’s safe here, it’s affordable here, and there is access to all of your needs and amenities,” says Chelsea.
The county is also in a location that is well suited for various types of industry and business. There is an available workforce that the MCCC continues to work on developing, and those employees benefit from the low cost of living, the excellent public schools, and the close proximity to a number of educational avenues including university, community college, and career centers.
The two largest cities in Monroe County experience different types of tourism; Amory is known for hosting festivals and is home to one of the state’s largest, called the Amory Railroad Festival, that began in 1979 and features live outdoor entertainment, local food and a carnival, with arts and crafts booths filling the streets. Aberdeen is full of antebellum homes and people from all over the world travel to tour these homes, particularly during the time of spring pilgrimage. Each of these two communities rally together to prepare for the high number of visitors every year.
Looking forward, Monroe County is excited about more innovative economic development ideas to better the community. It has some robust industrial property for sale in a convenient location on a port site and the MCCC hopes to land a long term manufacturer for that spot in the next three to five years.
The county’s growth will continue to move along at a steady pace to ensure that it can maintain its business-friendly atmosphere, and yet to keep its small town culture as it expands. Manufacturing is the largest employment sector in Monroe County and a couple of large companies are on the cusp of celebrating their 60-year anniversaries. These long term employers that function as community partners have second- and third-generation family members working at its facilities and this is the type of business that the MCCC hopes to continue to attract in the future.