Mississippi is the manufacturing anchor of Appalachia. At least, that’s how Tim Thomas sees it.

Thomas is the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the government agency that oversees economic development for the region. This year, the commission held its annual summit in Tupelo, Mississippi, known for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley and at one time, one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the nation. But Thomas said Mississippi is changing.

“Mississippi made some great strides…relative to manufacturing, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries,” Thomas said, “so workforce supply for them is key.”

Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

It’s part of the reason the ARC chose to hold its summit in one of the southernmost states in the region this year– the changing face of its manufacturing industry and the state’s focus on developing and training a workforce to support it.

Mississippi has emphasized vocational training, as well as the creation of high-tech hubs and collaborative worker training programs with companies like Toyota, but depending on the part of Appalachia you’re in, workforce development and workforce training might mean different things.

Central Appalachia, for example, has been left with a significant number of workers trained for an industry that has faded away rapidly over the past decade.

According to a 2017 study by Downstream Strategies, presented during the “Planning for Mine Land Reclamation” panel at the summit, 1.6 percent of West Virginia’s total workforce was lost due to the decline of mining jobs between the fourth quarters of 2011 and 2014. Kentucky lost 0.6 percent of its workforce during that same period.

So, instead of training workers to keep up with the technological advances of the industry they’re already in, coalfield states have to work to retrain workers to enter a new field.

That has been one of Thomas’ priorities since being sworn in as federal co-chair in April– reviving coal economies by helping them move beyond mining operations and addressing such issues as distribution and supply chains there.

According to Thomas, the downturn of the coal industry and its impact is far broader than often recognized. He sees its impact in transportation, both on land and on the water, and in the manufacturing of heavy equipment.

“We are seeing some efforts for retraining from mining,” Thomas said, adding some of those efforts have been promising. Among them, coding and other high-tech skills being taught to the former coal miners of the region.

“That is going to be the key to further diversify the coal regions themselves, to get some other entities in place to provide employment, in addition to [those] directly tied to the mining industry,” he added.

Thomas laid out two additional priorities for Appalachian governors at last weeks summit. The governors of all 13 states serve as co-chairs of the ARC alongside him.

Those priorities also have links to workforce development– strengthening and supporting the tradition of Appalachian entrepreneurship and combating the opioid epidemic.

Substance abuse in the region has contributed to the greater suppression of local economies by decimating the workforces in communities and creating the danger of significant public health threats, like outbreaks of HIV or Hepatitis C due to the sharing of needles for intravenous drug use.

But the problem goes beyond just health impacts. In many cases individuals who struggled with substance abuse disorders can still find themselves unable to return to the job market because of a criminal record.

Thomas declared readiness to devote co-chair funds to address these problems. He said Appalachia will need to embrace some non-traditional candidates, including those recovering from substance abuse disorders and nonviolent drug offenders.

“We cannot have a population who wants a career and a job overwhelmed by opioid abuse. We cannot,” echoed Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Thomas also signaled the ARC’s intention to start reviewing its Power Initiative program, which was created three years ago. The federal grant program targets funding for economic diversification to communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry to invest in workforce development, create new jobs and attract new sources of investment. It is one of the ARC’s most sought after grant programs.

Thomas said the agency needs to reassess the program to assure they are not over-investing in some communities and underinvesting in others.

“Innovation” Remains the Key Word for the Region

So, what industries could be the key to a prosperous future in Appalachia? Again, it depends on what part of the region you consider, but a number of them were shared at the ARC Summit.

Nathan Hall with West Virginia’s Sprouting Farms suggested that the most promising course for the reclaimed land of Central Appalachia’s abandoned mine sites is reforestation, sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.

Conference attendees were required to fill out these forms to select panels and breakout sessions to attend. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

According to Hall, the cultivation of tree fruits (paw paws, apples), berries (blackberries, raspberries), nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts) and herbs on these sites in the region could potentially challenge such major producing states as California.

Gov. Bryant sees the future of Mississippi among the stars, leading in aerospace technologies and being at the forefront of modern manufacturing, robotics, automation and advances in healthcare services.

Entrepreneurs like Marsha G. Folsom believe new industrial crops could also change the face of the region. Folsom is the co-founder of Resource Fiber, an Alabama company that is working to expand the bamboo manufacturing industry in the state.

Folsom has plans to plant up to 200,000 acres of industrial bamboo by 2020 and believes it could be planted as far north as West Virginia. According to Folsom, bamboo has both economic and environmental benefits. It is proven to absorb more carbon dioxide, while producing up to 35 percent more oxygen than other plants, she said, and is a low maintenance and renewable resource that, according to the company, produces 20 times more fiber than regular lumber.

Ohio University is producing paint pigment out of acid mine drainage, while cleaning the contaminated water.

While many of the conference presenters were realistic about the challenges that face Appalachia and the amount of time it will likely take to overcome them, the overarching message was that economic development in the region must be tied to industries and technologies of the future and not those of the past and Appalachia states must prioritize training a workforce for those industries.

That is certainly Mississippi’s goal, according to Gov. Bryant.

“Man will go to Mars and come home safely one day,” he said of his state’s future, “but will have to pass through Mississippi first.”