MAYHEW — Dr. Raj Shaunak wasn’t looking for a career when he volunteered in 1991 to teach math to adult basic education students at East Mississippi Community College. He had already achieved the American dream.
He stayed through the exodus of the area’s major manufacturers, rose to the top of the college’s Workforce Services division and helped spawn a manufacturing renaissance that has retooled the Golden Triangle.
On Aug. 3, Gov. Phil Bryant bestowed Shaunak with the 2017 Excellence in Local and District Government Award.
Shaunak, EMCC’s vice president for Workforce and Community Services, was one of two recipients of the governor’s 2017 Excellence in Government Awards, which recognizes and encourages innovation in public administration. Samantha Atkinson, director of the performance audit division of the Office of the State Auditor, garnered the Excellence in State Government Award.
“Samantha and Dr. Shaunak represent the best of public service,” Bryant said. “I am grateful for their work and am proud to present them with the Excellence in Government Awards.”
The Mississippi Excellence in Government Awards program was established by the Mississippi State Personnel Board at the direction of the Mississippi Legislature, and the inaugural award was presented in 2012.
In a press release announcing the winners, the Mississippi Personnel Board calls Shaunak a primary force in workforce and economic development in the Golden Triangle area.
“He played a crucial role in the recruitment of companies including Airbus, PACCAR, and Yokohama Tire Company to Mississippi’s Golden Triangle,” the press release states. “He has partnered with the Mississippi Development Authority to lead workforce development efforts for these companies locating to Mississippi. Dr. Shaunak is also a leader in innovative educational programming; he spearheaded the efforts to create EMCC’s Communiversity, a state-of-the-art career-technical facility with a hands-on museum. Finally, he has partnered, authored, secured, and implemented many successful grants to benefit Mississippians.”
EMCC President Dr. Thomas Huebner, who presented the governor’s award to Shaunak on Tuesday, Sept. 5, said the college’s role as an educational conduit to fuel a growing demand for highly skilled manufacturing employees is vital.
“The availability of high-quality technical education is a necessity for U.S. industries as they continue to transition to automated production processes,” Huebner said. “Raj understands that our commitment to providing that training ensures our local industries will have access to the employees they require, our graduates will be in high demand and our community will reap economic benefits.”
Of Indian descent, Shaunak was born in Kenya, East Africa and educated in London. In 1972, Shaunak visited his brother, a professor at Mississippi State University, fell in love with Starkville and decided to stay.
Shaunak and his brother started their own business and developed a power cable with low resistance that quickly became popular with utility companies. On Oct. 31, 1989, the brothers sold their business to Southwire Company.
At the age of 42, Shaunak had made his million and symbolically tossed his Bulova watch in the Tennessee-Tombigbee River.
“I said to myself, ‘Raj, you are free now and don’t need to work on anyone’s time. Do what you want to do to give back.”
After a two-year hiatus traveling and filling his bucket list, Shaunak landed at EMCC, working for a couple of years as a volunteer until he was asked to help create a workforce development program at the college.
“Nobody knew anything about workforce development at the time,” Shaunak said. “It was a new thing starting at some of the community colleges. We had three or four people in what was called the Skill Tech Center.”
Over the next decade, from 1993 to 2003, the Golden Triangle lost 33 percent of its manufacturing jobs in a trend mirrored nationwide, Shaunak said, with a major blow coming in 2007 when Sara Lee announced the closure of its West Point plant.
Shaunak credits area leaders, such as former MSU President Dr. Malcolm Portera, for recognizing the key to attracting new industries was providing a workforce with training in advanced manufacturing skills as low-skills production jobs moved overseas.
“In 1993 to 1994, when dollars were tough and there were jobs bleeding away, going to east Asia, South America and Central America, Dr. Portera said the Center for Manufacturing Technology Education needs to be here because America will still be the leader in advanced technology,” Shaunak said. “He was a visionary.”
Since its establishment, EMCC’s CMTE program has continued to grow and add new programs, such as Automation & Control, Electro-Mechanical Technology/Mechantronics and Precision Machining and Manufacturing, to name a few. Rather than assembly-line jobs, graduates are hired to program and repair robotics, among other things, and often earn as much if not more than those with advanced academic degrees.
With the support of economic development agencies, local, state and federal officials, the tide began to turn as companies like Steel Dynamics, Inc., SeverCorr Corporation (now Severstal Columbus), Airbus Helicopters, Baldor Electric Company, Stark Aerospace, PACCAR Engine Company and Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi opened plants in the Golden Triangle.
EMCC works closely with area industries to develop training programs that are specific to their needs.
“We listen to what our industry wants,” Shaunak said. “EMCC is absolutely the trend setter in providing training for these high-tech manufacturing jobs. Our students are trained on cutting edge machinery and equipment by instructors who are not only passionate about their work but who have worked in business and industry and understand the language. We have earned a reputation as a top-notch, quality institution.
“Over the years, EMCC has established credibility and trust with those with whom we work, whether it is economic developers, elected officials or business and industry leaders. That is one of our greatest assets.”
Shaunak sees himself as a figurehead and credits the team he has built over the years with the success enjoyed by the college’s Workforce Services division.
“I am a relationship builder,” Shaunak said. “I know nothing technical. I have a great group of highly qualified faculty and staff who are self-motivated. They want to see our students succeed and improve the trajectory of their lives.”