Joe Max Higgins has attracted about 6,000 manufacturing jobs back to an area of Mississippi that lost thousands of them since the 1990s. He’s done it by aggressively pursuing corporations with tax breaks, ready-to-build sites and other incentives. But a critical element of his strategy is to provide a jobs ready workforce trained in the “advanced manufacturing” skills new factories require. Higgins explains to Bill Whitaker how he brings jobs back to one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest states in the U.S. on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
During the recession, unemployment hit as high as 20 percent in an area of Northeastern Mississippi called “the Golden Triangle.” Through the 1990s, factories here provided low-skill work producing goods like toys, textiles and tubing. Then the area suffered the same fate as many manufacturing hubs across the country-the plants started closing and the jobs moved away. That’s when the locals hired Joe Max Higgins.
Higgins managed to reel in several corporations, including one of the country’s most technologically advanced steel mills. Local unemployment is now down to 6 percent, just above the national average. A few years ago, he lured PACCAR, an engine company, with a pitch that offered trained workers. “Nobody in the Golden Triangle made engines. Nobody made any of this stuff,” says Higgins. “So what you’re really looking for is, do our citizens have the acumen for work? Do they have the work ethic? Are they skilled enough to be trained to do jobs? And the answer is yes, yes, and yes,” he tells Whitaker.
Higgins enlisted the local community college to equip the workforce with the skills needed to keep an advanced manufacturing plant humming. At PACCAR, those skills include programming the army of robots that line the factory floor. Nina Head lost her job when the area’s biggest industrial employer, Sara Lee, closed its century-old pork processing plant in 2007. She got a job at PACCAR. “I’ve never worked with robots. So I had to be trained to do that. But I had the skills because I went to school to learn how to get the job,” says Head.
A re-trained workforce was a deal maker for his biggest catch yet, Yokohama Tire, which plans to eventually employ 2,000 at its Golden Triangle factory. Higgins beat out every county in the continental U.S. to land the tire plant.
Asked about the naysayers who believe the golden age of manufacturing in the U.S. is over, Higgins says, “I think that’s not right. These plants, they pay well. Most of the working conditions are very good, and those are the jobs that are in demand,” he says. “If we can create those types of industries, those types of jobs, I think the sky’s still the limit for the United States.”