National News

Shinseki Couldn't Outflank Election-Year Politics

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 13:54

By President Obama's own admission, politics had a lot to do with why he decided to accept VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation.

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What’s Ballmer buying? An 'expensive plaything'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 13:45

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is buying the LA Clippers for $2 billion. It’s a record-breaking sum if the deal goes through, though for Ballmer, it’s fairly small compared to his estimated $20 billion fortune. For his money, he’ll get a team that’s poised to greatly increase its TV revenues and the thanks of fans grateful to be rid of Donald Sterling, disgraced after his infamous racist rant. But above all, he’s getting a remarkably expensive plaything.

“He’s not getting a sound economic investment. He’s buying a big toy,” says Andy Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “It’s a vanity purchase. He gets a lot of exposure, ego massaging.”

$2 billion is more than what most analysts think the team is worth, with some valuing it at a quarter of that price. But in the bonkers world of sports business, all that matters is what one super-rich person will pay.

Regardless of what the team’s true value is, Ballmer will almost certainly benefit from a far richer TV contract when the current one expires. Some estimate the Clippers next deal could triple what they’re making now.

“All of the big deals that we’ve seen in recent times that are really startling have been fueled by the money that’s coming in from freshly negotiated or to-be negotiated TV contracts,” says Clemson University sports economist Skip Sauer.

After all, another LA team, baseball’s Dodgers, sold for $2.1 billion. The new owners went on to sell the media rights for billions more in a 25-year agreement. But of course, the Clippers are far less popular and successful than the Dodgers. Trying to change that could soon be Ballmer’s problem.

Weekly wrap: Numbers, nudging

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 13:42

There was a lot to talk about in the economy this week.

For starters, the revised number for Gross Domestic Product growth came out yesterday and things are not looking so good. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economy contracted in the most recent quarter by one percent.

"I think this just shows that the economic growth we have now isn't very robust. It's no time to get complacent, but it's not all bad news. Things are getting a little better," says Cardiff Garcia from the blog FT Alphaville.

However, many argue that in one more quarter, we'll be back in another recession. 

Nela Richardson, chief economist for the brokerage and referal site Redfin, believes we should fear these numbers because the goals set by the Feds are not as attainable as they make it seem. 

"What it would take for us to reach the 3 percent that the Fed has been forcasting is for us to grow in the second half of this year by 5 percent... I just don't see any evidence of where this growth is going to come. And the reason I'm so troubled is because business investment plumeted so much... There's no indication that the seeds of growth that would hit 5 percent in the second half of the year are actually starting to bloom in the spring swoon," says Richardson.

The inflation number also came out this week. And it appears we had a small increase in inflation.

"It has all kinds of beneficial effects. It also can be a sign that the economy is starting to grow again. But the good thing about inflation when it doesn't spike too quickly is that it means that households are incentivised to spend money because their money is going to worth a little bit less each year. It also means that businesses are incentivised to invest," says Cardiff.

The still looming problems at the VA

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 13:32

President Barack Obama announced Friday morning he had accepted Eric Shinseki’s resignation. The retired four-star general is no longer the secretary of Veterans Affairs.

While Shineski’s departure may quiet the political storm around how VA hospitals tried to hide long wait times for veterans, it does little to fix the larger task of figuring out what is wrong with the VA health care system and how to fix it. 

This is a big job, and many people would say Shinseki’s successor will be in an unenviable position.

“Good luck to whoever comes in,” says Michael Useem, head of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a turnaround, a restructuring.”

That has been done successfully, he notes, many times in the private sector, but the new head of the VA will face certain pressures someone in the private sector probably wouldn’t. 

“It’s a highly politicized environment with not a lot of resources to allocate,” says Tom D’Aunno, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

About those resources…

“The system’s growth has been slower than the growth in the demand for services,” says Jack Needleman, a public health professor at UCLA.

The VA has a pretty big budget, but most of it is tied up in pensions and disability. It is possible Congress could step in and give the agency more money.

Some lawmakers want to make it easier for the agency to hire and fire staff, but Needleman wonders if that should be at the top of the agenda.

“What we have learned from decades of work studying health systems and quality is it’s often a system problem, not a personnel problem,” he says.

And the Veterans Health Administration is a big system that is pretty decentralized.

D’Aunno says there will be additional pressure to fix things fast, but, he adds, real reform would take time.

“This is not about making heads roll,” he says. “This is about doing actual problem solving.”

According to D’Aunno, the new secretary’s first objective should be to build trust among the VA’s ranks, to find out exactly what has gone wrong.  

House Vote Aims To Derail DOJ Processing Of Clemency Petitions

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:45

Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly said language inserted by lawmakers to prevent the hire of additional Justice Department attorneys is "absurd."

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Google gets a makeover

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:41

A story from the Marketplace Desk of "Yes, the internet actually is making us stupid."


Google apparently changed its logo this week. Nothing major, really.

Just a tweak. A tiny tweak, you might say.

They moved the second "g" one pixel to the right, and the "l" one pixel down and one to the right.

Makes it more...readable...apparently.

Check out this .gif from Gizmodo -- it all makes sense now, right?




One estimate of the cost of new EPA rules: $51 billion

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:39

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency will announce the Obama Administration’s biggest concrete push to combat global warming: The first-ever regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce put out a report in advance of the rules, saying, in effect: "Hey, this is going to cost a whole bunch of money."

The Chamber estimated that EPA’s regulations could reduce Gross Domestic Product  by up to $51 billion a year.  

Yale economist William Nordhaus — called the father of climate economics — does some quick math in his head when he hears that figure. "That’s a little more than two-tenths of a percent of GDP," he says, "So, that would be one hundredth of one percent off the growth rate."  In other words, he says, given the enormous size of the U.S. economy, and the fact that it grows every year, $51 billion is a rounding error.

Karen Harbert, who runs the arm of the Chamber that put out the $51 billion figure, cites a contrasting view of one- or two-tenths percent of GDP. "I think the White House put it best on Thursday with their energy plan," she says, "when they were giving credit to the oil and gas sector for creating jobs. They said, ‘It was significant, they added .2 percent to GDP!’"

There’s also the cost/benefit analysis: What benefits could the money produce?  In this case: The plan is to mitigate global warming.

There are likely to be side benefits as well, says Dmitri Zenghelis, from the London School of Economics, who compares it to technological advances driven by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. "You tend to find that you solve that challenge and provide all sorts of spillovers which give you things like Internets and hand-held devices and touch-screens," he says.

"But let's not kid ourselves," he says. "It's not going to be win-win. There are going to be some transitional costs, and there will be some losers in the interim." Those losers can be expected to complain about their costs. 

In the end, those losses don't justify inaction, Nordhaus says. "There’s just no argument I’ve heard for postponing this," he says. "Because it is going to get worse, it is going to get more costly, and the longer we wait, the steeper up the damage curve we go."

An analogy might be a homeowner who notices a couple of loose bricks in the wall of his or her house. A repair guy provides an estimate, which sounds expensive. But if the work doesn't get done now, the expense will only multiply.

That analogy sounds about right to Dallas Burtraw, an economist with Resources for the Future. "You have a problem that you know inevitably is going to catch up with you," he says, "but any single day, it seems to make sense to procrastinate."

Border Agency Revises And Makes Public Its Use Of Force Policy

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:39

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske has released documents regarding the use of force along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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SpaceX Unveils A Sleek New Ride To Orbit

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:38

The private space-launch company has taken its Dragon capsule design and taught it some cool new tricks.

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Retired Army Gen. On Shinseki: 'I Don't Look Up To Any Man More'

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:34

For more on Gen. Eric Shinseki's decision to step down, Robert Siegel turns to Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former Vice-Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army.

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Shinseki's Apology Punctuates A Long Career Of Service

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:14

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized for lengthy waits at VA facilities, saying he's ousting the leaders of a VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz., after stories about delays in care there. Shinseki's decision to resign marks a muddy end to an illustrious career, which began when he joined the Army nearly five decades ago.

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VA Secretary Shinseki Steps Down Amid Reports Of Systemic Problems

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:14

Gen. Eric Shinseki is stepping down as the secretary of veteran's affairs. The decision comes in the midst of growing outrage over scheduling issues in the VA health system.

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An American Suicide Bomber In Syria

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:14

The U.S. State Department has confirmed that an American was involved in carrying out a suicide attack. The man, who was fighting in Syria against President Bashar Assad's regime, had ties to Florida.

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Spelling Co-Champs Beat The Bee, Leaving Judges Without Words

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:14

For the first time since 1962, there are co-champions at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Teens Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar tied when the pair exhausted the official list of words.

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How the recession shaped a more humble generation

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:06

Every generation thinks they're better than the next, and the "you kids get off my lawn" attitude has been particularly tough on Millennials. They've been called entitled, lazy and self-involved.

But, they're also young people who came of age during a recession. According to a study done by Dr. Emily Bianchi of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, recession is an event that could mitigate characteristics of narcissism.

"We don’t know a whole lot about where narcissism comes from, but what we do know seems to suggest that narcissism is tempered by adversity and to some extent by failure,” she says.

Do you think Millennials are more likely to be narcissists?

The word narcissist is one that is often misused to describe people who are vain, rude, or plain old self-centered. In psychology, narcissism has distinguishing characteristics other than self-admiration.

“Hallmarks of narcissism are lack of empathy, a sense that one is better than other people around them, a heightened sense of self-importance. Even a willingness to exploit other people to achieve one’s own gains,” Bianchi says.

While narcissistic tendencies can wreak havoc in one’s personal relationships, these qualities have conflicting implications in the workplace.

“On the one hand, narcissists tend to be very charming, people tend to be drawn to them, they tend to be very charismatic, and they tend to be very inspiring leaders. On the other hand, they tend to be very difficult to work for; they tend to take credit for anything that goes well and tend to assign blame for anything that goes poorly. They don’t tend to make terrific mentors and people often feel out on their own when working for a narcissist,” Bianchi says.

According to Bianchi, "Narcissism is cultivated by allowing egos to expand unchecked by adversity and humbling setbacks or failures." This goes to the pervasive attitude that children of today would be more successful if they weren’t praised as much or didn’t receive a trophy simply for participating, as opposed to actually winning or excelling at something.

Millennials are more likely to graduate college with student debt than those in preceding generations, they are having a harder time finding a job when they do graduate, more than one-third of them are living at home with their parents, and according to Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary, Millennials “may be the first cohort to end up worse off than their parents.”

Despite the negative ways in which this generation has been affected by the economy, Bianchi says that there may be a small, bright side to the recession. “We know that their careers have been affected, or likely to be affected in all sorts of negative ways, but I think most people would probably be pleased to hear that this might temper narcissism in the workplace."

Oklahoma's Extreme Drought Has Wheat Farmers Bracing For Worst

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 12:04

Four years of crippling drought has withered the agricultural economies of Great Plains states like Oklahoma. The USDA forecasts this year's wheat crop will be half what it would be in a good year.

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Happy anniversary, federal gas tax!

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 11:48

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's an extended look at what's coming up the week of June 2:

On Monday, the Commerce Department issues construction spending data for April. On Tuesday it reports on factory orders for April.

Have you been doing some spring cleaning? Maybe cleaning out the garage to make room for a new car? Automakers are slated to report sales for May.

On Wednesday, the Senate Budget Committee holds a hearing on "The Impact of Student Loan Debt on Borrowers and the Economy."

On Thursday, chain-stores are scheduled to release sales figures for May.

That brings us to Friday when all eyes will be on the May jobs report.

On June 6th, 1998, HBO's "Sex and the City" premiered. It ran for six seasons and (fortunately) remains in syndication.

It's also the anniversary of the first federal gasoline tax, enacted in 1932. One penny per gallon. That's where it began. Today we pay 18.4 cents per gallon, and state tax too.

And finally, June is National Candy Month. You may ask "why?" But I think the real question is, "Why not?" We'll wrap on that.

U.S. Confirms American Carried Out Suicide Bombing In Syria

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 11:47

An affiliate of al-Qaida fighting against the Syrian government tweeted the "martyrdom" of the U.S. jihadi earlier this week.

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Thailand's Military Ruler Says No Elections For At Least A Year

NPR News - Fri, 2014-05-30 11:14

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power last week, also warned anti-coup protesters, saying they lack a "true understanding of democracy."

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The death of manufacturing is greatly exaggerated

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-05-30 10:56

Columbus is a city that was built on industry, on manufacturing. But that description of the city today was't the reality of a decade ago, when big chunks of the manufacturing in this part of Mississippi just went away.

If you think America doesn’t make anything anymore, then come to Columbus, Mississippi.

Severstal Steel has what’s called a mini-mill here, but that’s kind of like nicknaming the biggest guy on the football team "Tiny."

Our guide is Jim Bell. He’s Severstal North America’s Manager of Construction and Engineering. “The name is a little deceiving,” he says, his voice echoing off the 80-foot ceilings. The place is not just cavernous, it’s several football fields long. It’s also loud, hot and smells like gas.

“They’re opening the doors of the furnace now,” Jim says as machine whirs and hisses all around. “That means a bar is coming through.”

Here they are forging steel to the tune of 3.3 million tons a year at temperatures up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

The steel is formed and pressed into sheets, sometimes 100 feet long and tens of thousands of pounds. They’re then wound up with pressure and heat like a Fruit Roll-Up. The water used to spray them off during this process continues to boil long after a roll is finished.

“It’ll take it about three to five days for it to cool down enough for us to either ship it or process it,” Bell says.

Just across John Bell Way, a road named after Jim Bell’s dad, who helped build this complex, Severstal’s air-conditioned offices sit like an oasis in the fiery brimstone of the mill complex. That’s where Saikat Dey, the CEO of Severstal, North America works when he visits from the company’s headquarters in Detroit.

“The total NAFTA market for steel is roughly 70 million tons,” Dey says. “Columbus, Mississippi, represents roughly five percent of it.”

The company has 674 employees. “Most of them grew up [in Columbus], went to school here, went to high school here,” Dey says.

Dey says that's because Severstal is fairly high up in the value chain of production; for every one steel job created at the company, about seven more jobs are created downstream or in related industries.

"So just the effect of having 674 jobs created in Severstal Columbus, multiply that by seven times and you’re talking of a number north of 4,200,” he says.

The complex is so imposing, that it’s pretty hard to believe that just nine years ago the spot it sits now looked like this.

Tommy Andres/Marketplace

Just an open field, filled with knee-high grass, wildflowers, and that black delta earth.

That was until Joe Max Higgins, Jr. came along. He's the CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK. We spoke to Higgins in what could only be described as the middle of nowhere.

"Or we could say the epicenter of the tire industry," Higgins says. "We’re in the middle of about a 1,500 acre site, and Yokohama Tire and Rubber is building a brand new plant here that once complete will be a $1.2 billion investment, about a five-million square-foot building and when it’s done will employ about 2,000 people.”

Higgins has been the head of economic development for Lowndes, the county Columbus calls home, for eleven years. And in those 11 years his team has managed to bring in $4.7 billion in investment and created almost 5,600 jobs in the area.

Higgins says the manufacturing boom all started with one big win.

“People viewed us as the guys who were dipping snuff with no teeth, the girls are pregnant with no shoes, we can’t read and write and half the people will, you know, burn a cross in someone’s front yard on Friday or Saturday night for fun. I mean, that’s how the world would view us," Higgins says.

But then, "All of a sudden American Eurocopter, now Airbus helicopter, they came in and all of a sudden we were building stuff that flies. And I don’t mean flies a little bit, I mean flies real well," says Higgins. "The people from that point on started standing up and being proud. And these other projects are witness to that.”

After Columbus landed Airbus, other companies began to check out the city. What they found was a town nestled between two universities, with plenty of land, plenty of power and plenty of non-union labor. Higgins and his team took the money from Airbus and used it to create more potential sites for development and to land more contracts. Columbus is now home to seven multi-national companies.

“Every project we do, we move forward," Higgins says, "The steel mill in Lowndes County ultimately put the plant together that bought and put together about 5,500 acres of land."

Yokohama Tire Corporation will open phase one of its new tire factory next year on a parcel of that land, and the construction of a new highway, a new railroad and new water and sewer lines to serve it will make the sites next to it even more valuable.

That’s where Higgins is hoping to lure his next big fish. The competition from other cities is intense, and as we head back to the car to continue our driving tour of Columbus’s future, I spot proof of Higgins’ competitive spirit emblazoned right on the front of his big, black pick-up truck.

Tommy Andres/Marketplace

We asked him to explain: “Okay, if you’re a professional golfer, you come in third, fourth or fifth in The Master’s, you’re still getting some money. In my business if you come in second it’s last. You know, we could’ve spent $250,000 chasing this deal and lost it to Alabama or North Carolina or South Carolina and we would’ve been toast. So, 2EQLAST. Second equals last,” Higgins says.

Higgins has been in economic development for 28 years and spent his whole life living in Arkansas. But one day eleven years ago his phone rang with a call that changed all of that.

“When the headhunter called me about a job in Mississippi, I cussed her out and hung up on her. I said no way, no how, no way," Higgins says, "I had just watched Mississippi Burning, and I said I don’t want any part of it. And then I started looking at what was here as far as man-made assets and God-given assets, and I thought, you know, those guys ought to be winning.”

Higgins speaks in the platitudes of a college football coach. In fact the license plate on the front of his truck says “Play like a champion.” And over the past decade he’s strung together a series of wins that would impress any fan. And each one has helped solidify Columbus’s new reputation as a manufacturing hotspot.

“Everything we do tends to be big. If it’s a big project and we’re competing for it, there’s almost a one-in-two chance we’re going to win it," he says. "Based on what we play for and what we want over the last 11 years we’re batting about .225 on the smaller deals and about .445 on the big deals.”

But Higgins and his team aren’t just trying to lure any business to Columbus. They’ve sought out specific industries that they know can help the city grow.

“When we started doing this we said ‘a job’s not a job.’ You know, if we go out here and create a bunch of jobs just in sheer numbers that are poor-paying wages, we’re not really improving ourselves," he says. "So what we wanted to do is just say, let’s just have as a goal that we won’t really recruit or bring in anybody that doesn’t pay more than our county average.”

Higgins says the average worker at the Severstal Steel mill makes $80,000 a year before benefits. And that’s in an area where the median household income is $36,000. But while the city has made big strides, it’s still battling a troubled past.

“This is a two-step forward, one-step back business," says Higgins, "Everybody says if all these jobs have been created, how come the unemployment hasn’t gone down? Well, because Sara Lee closed during that time. Artech, Flexible Flyer, the freezer company. All those companies closed, so when we create 500 Yokohama jobs, that doesn’t replace all those jobs we lost. When we get Yokohama to 1,000 jobs it still doesn’t replace them, when we get them to 2,000 it still doesn’t replace them. But if we weren’t doing that, this would be an awful bad place to be.”

To understand what an awful bad place Columbus could have become, we sought out Brenda Lathan. She’s lived in the city for 40-some years.

Tommy Andres/Marketplace

“This was American Trouser. It was a cut and sew garment manufacturer. They have been closed maybe eight or nine years,” says Lathan, outside what is pretty much your classic run-down factory; it’s literally overgrown with weeds and broken bottles in the parking lot.

Lathan now works with Joe Max Higgins as the vice president of economic development for Lowndes County. She says Columbus exploded with manufacturing in the 1930s and 40s. Factories like this American Trouser one sprung up all over town and neighborhoods formed around them.

But in the 1990s, the manufacturers that called Columbus home started to dry up or move out.

Where did these jobs go?

“Overseas. China,” says Lathan.

She says there are only three or four old-line factories left in town. In fact, from 1993 to 2003, Columbus lost 33 percent of its manufacturing jobs to places like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and, of course, China, as Lathan mentioned.

American Trouser was one of the last to close up shop. The brick building has sat empty for almost a decade now. Lathan says when it was open, it employed about 300 people. And now that it's closed, the neighborhood has suffered.

"I’m heartbroken," says Lathan, "Because we had a facility here that could employ a large majority of our population, and now we don’t have that anymore.”

In 2007 the area was hit with its biggest blow. Bryan Foods, a homegrown pig processor that had been in Columbus’s neighboring town of West Point for a century, closed. Within two months, 1,600 people would be out of a job.

Byron Hampton was one of those workers who was suddenly out of work.

“When Sara Lee closed, it was incredibly deflating," says Hampton, "I mean, there were people who worked there from age 19 to whatever age they were when it closed. I was there until the last day it closed. I started when I was 19 or 20. You know, we all thought we’d kind of be there in a hometown in a place with good wages, great benefits – we all thought that would be the place we would always be.”

Hampton had gotten a two-year degree from East Mississippi Community college. His specialty was IT, but he had to take whatever job he could get at Severstal.   

“I started out in the mill on a crane, and we had some things going on with our network," he says. "My boss said, hey, you know, I see you’ve got this background so let’s talk a little bit.

"So it just blossomed into something else," he says."

Now Hampton is a shipping supervisor, using his degree in computer sciences. He says a lot of his friends from Bryan Foods who got laid off now work for Severstal too.

A big part of Columbus’s appeal to prospective companies is a well-trained workforce. And just up the road from from the Severstal steel mill is a blue-roofed complex where one man heads up the efforts to insure that exists.

Tommy Andres/Marketplace

Raj Shaunak runs the Workforce Development department at East Mississippi Community College, the same college where Higgins got his computer science degree. They train between 5,000 to 6,000 students every year.

Shaunak says that after the Sara Lee plant closed seven years ago, the majority of those 1,600 folks who lost their jobs came through the doors at EMCC.

“About 400 of them had the requisite skills, all we had to do was touch them a little bit and give them a little tangential push so that they could be gainfully employed at Severstal or Eurocopter or other places," says Shaunak. "But 898, that number is stuck in my brain, over the next two and a half years, we worked with them and retrained them for meaningful jobs.”

But Shaunak’s program at EMCC isn’t just about training workers for existing jobs. It’s about training them for future jobs. When Severstal decided to come to Columbus, East Mississippi Community College set up training specifically tailored to the company’s method of manufacturing, with the very equipment that would be used.

“For Severstal, for their 600 jobs, we lined up 10,000 people in ten days,” Shaunak says.

Even though the dirt is still being churned at the site of the future Yokohama Tire plant, Shaunak and his team are already training a pool of workers.

“Other than Mr. Yomomoto and his assistant, everyone from HR to engineers, PhDs to technicians have to go through this pathway,” he says.

Even though they only need 500 employees, they'll have 5,000 ready to go before Yokohama ever opens its doors.

"What happens to those who don’t get hired?" Shaunak asks. "They have higher skills now. They are more marketable. What happens when Yokohama Phase 2 occurs in 2016 or 2017, will they not be qualified? All we are trying to do is move people from dependence to enterprise. And that enterprise requires motivation on the part of those individuals.”

The big pool of trained workers help lures in more businesses and more businesses, bring more jobs, and the cycle of growth continues. When Joe Max Higgins brings around prospective companies, often his first stop is at EMCC, and many times the final decisions are made in its conference room.

Companies from the area donate equipment to the school. Severstal sent computers that run assembly lines, Airbus donated a helicopter, and Paccar, a company that makes semi-truck engines gave the school two of those engines to tinker with.

“We have the exact controls that Paccar has," Shaunuk says. "They gave us [two] engines. We unassemble them and then [the students] learn how to assemble it."

Just a mile up the road from EMCC is where those engines are made. And there is perhaps no greater illustration of how manufacturing in this part of the Mississippi has changed in the past decade or two.

Paccar is no cut-and-sew operation. It's a half-million square-foot, 400-employee, heavily-automated, high-tech facility. And in these walls they churn out one in every ten semi-truck engines in America.

It's ridiculously complicated and spotlessly clean. It's also air conditioned, which is rare for factories in these parts. Paccar pays pretty well too. Folks who work here start out making around $20 an hour with full benefits and a 401K.

PACCAR plant manager Scott Blue says his company can train almost anyone from the area who has at least a high school degree and is willing to work.

Case in point, Scott Croley. He cold tests the engines, checking them over for the last time before they’re shipped out.

“I came from Omnova," Croley says. "I had 23 years in Columbus, but they shut the plant down. It was factory work, but this new technology with the computers we have and everything here is a big change for me.”

Croley didn't have much of a technical background or a college degree. He attended EMCC for one year. 

“I was in forestry. It had nothing to do with here," he says. "And I was worried because I’d been at a place for 23 years and the technology was not up to date. I was worried about that. But they gave me a shot. And I told them I was hoping to get another 20 years in here." Croley says he hopes this is his last job. "I couldn't be blessed better than that."

And we heard that over and over from the workers we spoke with. Jemika Connor left Columbus to get an engineering degree at Georgia Tech, but she was able to come back home and get a job when her mom fell ill three years ago. "I love my job," she says. "I love the atmosphere; I love the people around me. I plan to retire out of Paccar."

We also heard it from Demarius Johnson who is working at Paccar while he finishes his degree at nearby Mississippi State University. Even though he's only 20, he says he's hoping to continue working here and move up in the company. "I don’t plan on leaving because like I said, I’ve been here, I like it, so why leave?”

That level of confidence in job security is not exactly something you expect in a town that still has 15 percent unemployment rate, but that’s down from 20 percent just four years ago. And the people of Columbus know their city’s turnaround is just getting started. Since Airbus came to town, The Golden Triangle has been hit with spillover from Hurricane Katrina, suffered through the recession and continued to battle old-line plant closures. But now that the national economy is turning around, the future looks bright, and Columbus is hoping to change the way people think of Mississippi.


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As we celebrate 35 years of broadcasting, we look ahead to technology improvements and the changing landscape of public radio.

Support the voices, music, information, and ideas that add so much to your life.Thank you for supporting your local public radio station.


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