Scott Waller of Madison is president and CEO of the state’s largest broad-based business organization, the Mississippi Economic Council. Before joining MEC in 2006, he spent more than 20 years as a newspaper journalist and was the co-owner of a residential construction company. A graduate of Mississippi State University, Waller serves on the State Workforce Investment Board. He chairs the board of the Council of State Chambers’ Center for State Chamber Action and is a member of the council’s board of directors. He also serves on the U.S. Chamber’s The Chamber of Commerce Committee of 100, the Institute of Organizational Management’s National Board of Trustees and the National Transportation Investment Advocacy Council. Waller is a member of the Jackson Rotary Club and the executive board of the Andrew Jackson Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Mississippi State University Alumni Association’s Central Mississippi Chapter.
Why did MEC consider it important to change Mississippi’s state flag?
“We’ve had a long-standing position that the state flag needed to be changed. There’s no question it had an impact on our ability to attract businesses and grow the economy. It’s an unknown because in many cases you didn’t know what companies didn’t look at the state and put us in the running. The state flag has been an obstacle and impediment to economic development.”
What message does it send that a majority of Mississippians voted to change the state flag?
“It shows we’ve taken action and gotten rid of something that needed to go. An overwhelming majority of our voters picked a new flag that has symbolism that honors our past and features the magnolia, which is about our state’s blossoming future. The change in state flag is an important part of putting Mississippi in a place where we’re looking forward and taking advantage of what’s out there in the future and not looking back. We are not anywhere near reaching our full potential in Mississippi. Changing the state flag is a step of many needed to improve our state and will make the next steps easier.”
How did COVID-19 affect MEC and its operation?
“With the onset of COVID-19, the MEC staff immediately began to work remotely and still does for the most part. We have a two-page list of guidelines that a staff member must follow if they chose to work in the office.
“The MEC membership team spent time reaching out to our members. They didn’t call asking them to renew their dues or sponsor something. They just called to say, ‘How can we help you? Did you know we have a resource page on our website that could be helpful?’”
What information does the resource page on the MEC website include?
“We looked at what businesses needed to do, what assistance they could apply for to keep their doors open and how they could reopen safely and created a guide for them. We update it regularly.
“During the legislative session in early July, MEC played a role in the passage of the Mississippi Back-to-Business Liability Assurance and Health Care Emergency Response Liability Protection Act. The U.S. Chamber has called it one of the best legislations of its kind.
“The bill states that if a business ‘attempts in good faith to follow applicable public health guidance it shall be immune from a suit for civil damages for any injuries or death resulting from or related to actual or alleged exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 in the course of or through the performance or provision of its functions or services.’ The bill is comprehensive in covering political subdivisions, educational entities, for-profit or nonprofit entities, religious organizations, or charitable organizations.”
What can be done to keep and attract a talented workforce?
“What is going to matter is a focus on bringing the types of jobs people want to stay for. Higher paying, higher skills jobs. When those are in place, there’s a reason for people to be in Mississippi versus going to another state.
“What you also have to think about is the quality of life and what the state has to offer. Younger people like living and working in the same general area and being able to walk to things nearby. We see that in Fondren in Jackson. If you focus on those types of things that create a place where young people want to live, the types of jobs they want to do and opportunities that let them explore their entrepreneurial spirit, that goes a long way.”
What can be done to provide an educated workforce for Mississippi?
“Not everyone needs or wants to go to college, but everyone wants to make wages that allow them to support themselves and their family. We need to encourage students to start thinking about what they want to do when they’re in the eighth grade not when they’re seniors.
“The Mississippi Scholars Initiative is an education program managed by the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, an affiliate of MEC, which utilizes business leaders to motivate students to complete a rigorous course of study in high school. This course path gives students a boost – not just for college but for life. The Initiative pairs trained local business leaders with classes of eighth-grade students.
“There’s also the Mississippi Scholars Tech Master program, which encourages students to pursue and perform well in a tech-prep course of study and recognizes their achievements at graduation.
“We’re focused on the issue of helping more students find their pathway to opportunities. The idea is ‘How do we create opportunities and make people aware of the opportunities and get students on the path that’s right for them?’ There’s no one size fits all.”
What is MEC doing to address diversity and inclusivity issues?
“MEC is working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Kellogg Foundation Business Case for Racial Equity. The U.S. Chamber reached out to MEC as a state chamber of commerce to assist in facilitating group discussions of 10-15 people. We’re doing 11 meetings, eight of which have taken place virtually. Cathy Northington, the MEC COO, is managing and overseeing the project. The point of that project is to give us research from the local perspective on how to address the issues of diversity and inclusion.
“Those issues have been on the forefront for a number of years when you look at the demographics of our state. What has happened the last few months has pushed them up higher quicker.”
What makes Mississippi attractive to businesses?
“What makes Mississippi attractive today is there’s a great opportunity to write your own ticket. We’re focused on all of the things that can make your business successful. You can see it with our state leadership, our local communities and our existing business. Our existing businesses are behind supporting the initiatives I have mentioned and there’s a strong push on the corporate level for those things, too.”