Summit speakers say workforce training needs cooperation between business, education

by Jamie Smith ([email protected]) 196 views 

Students in the Rogers Heritage High School manufacturing cluster work on skills that could help them find jobs that are high wage, high skill, and in high demand. The need for a trained workforce was the focus of the Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit sponsored by the Springdale Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday (Nov. 17). Photo courtesy of teacher Barry Knight. 

Business and education leaders need to work together to ensure Northwest Arkansas and the state at large has a trained workforce, according to multiple discussions throughout the Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit held Tuesday (Nov. 17).

Common themes were making students (i.e. potential employees of all ages) aware of the viability of various industries that are growing in the region, and the need to prepare students to enter those workplaces with the appropriate skills. The skills include technical skills and “soft skills” such as communication and work ethic.

“This conference comes at the perfect time for our region,” said Perry Webb, president and CEO of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce and the host organization for the regional event. “This conference, for the first time, will bring together Northwest Arkansas employers, business owners, educators and policy makers to advance the process of improving how we prepare the employees of tomorrow. Every voice matters. This summit gives all the players involved in workforce training the opportunity to get on the same page and sing out of the same song book.”

Organizers estimate that 350 people, with an even split between educators and business, participated in the event that featured local and national speakers. Bill Rogers with the Springdale Chamber said it will be up to each community how lessons learned from the summit will be put into place. The summit is part of a 10-piece plan Springdale is working on, he added.

The morning began with Jennifer McNelly, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, talking about the need to “build the manufacturing talent pipeline.” Many of her ideas are applicable across other industries, however. According to a press release, McNelly is “chief architect of the National Association of Manufacturers Skills Certification System, a set of nationally portable, industry-recognized manufacturing skills certifications being used to build the next generation of skilled manufacturing employees by influencing secondary and post-secondary education reform efforts in at least 35 states.”

One of McNelly’s points was that the manufacturing industry needs to have high quality recruitment and community involvement, just as it has high quality production and safety standards.

“We need the NFL of strategies in recruitment,” she said.

One strategy is to establish ambassadors for the industry including women and other minority groups, parents, and employees who are close in age and experience to the students being recruited. It’s also vital to engage the community by simply sharing about what the company produces and the jobs that are available. This is already being addressed with National Manufacturing Day events and other similar activities. For example, the City of Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce is celebrating Manufacturers Appreciation Week through Nov. 20. This includes plant tours for high school students.

The next portion of the summit featured Rick Webb, a regional leader in advancing entrepreneurial efforts, STEM education and creating a collaborative, innovative business environment, and Russell Tooley of Tyson Foods, to discuss employer needs today and what they anticipate in the future. Webb is a former senior vice president of global business processes with Walmart, while Tooley heads Tyson Foods’ business process and continuous improvement division, a group tasked with improving efficiencies throughout the company, according to the press release.

“We have people from education and the workforce here today,” Russell said. “The answers are truly in this room.”

He spoke of how consumer interests are changing and that forces businesses to adapt. Businesses usually have their processes right for production, but they also need to “get the people right,” Russell said. 

Employees need good communication skills, for example. Many younger generation employees are excellent at email and other written forms of communication. Yet, they struggle with verbal communication, at which older generations usually excel.

Webb spoke about how 21st century manufacturing and supply chains will be more demand-driven, and idea that was an overall theme of the summit.

“They need to learn how to learn,” he said.

The idea is that students need to be taught how to learn new skills and why the skills are needed rather than simply teaching them step-by-step instructions for a given process. While those skills are vital, they are also more easily taught.

Both men spoke about the value of STEM education, adding that business leaders need this kind of education because it teaches them to apply scientific and mathematical thought processes to decision making instead of relying on emotion.

The summit then moved to the education side of the discussion. A panel that featured Johnny Key, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education; Jody Wiggins, assistant superintendent of the Siloam Springs School District; Clayton Williams, assistant principal at Farmington High School; and Joe Rollins, principal of the School of Innovation in the Springdale School District.

According to the panel, many schools have begun programs that address the needs mentioned by the business leaders. For example, Siloam Springs has what is called a conversion charter school that blends the business world with the education world to provide real-life training and experience. This program was funded through grants and private donations, which made creating such a program much faster and possible than if the school had to wait for regular education funding processes, according to the discussion.

Barry Knight, a teacher in a machine tool instructor at Heritage High School in Rogers, praised his school’s manufacturing cluster program, which is one of only three such programs in the state. He said students in the program have been able to find high-paying jobs.

“These are high wage, high skill, and high demand jobs,” he said, adding that many Baby Boomers in manufacturing are retiring.

Even as the high schools are starting to produce the trained workers, that still leaves a gap of workers age 20 to 58, he said. Another advantage of his program speaks to an idea that was also discussed at the summit, which is that students need to learn to problem solve and think rather than just perform tasks in front of them.

The summit concluded with three more sessions. The first being a panel with Dr. Charisse Childers, director of the Arkansas Department of Career Education; Danny Games, deputy director of Arkansas Economic Development Commission; and Randy Zook, president/CEO of Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

A common theme from that discussion were the need to look at what a region’s specific needs are and responding with those training programs. For example, the needs in Northwest Arkansas vary from the needs in Northeast Arkansas. They also reiterated the idea that education and the government pace of getting things done should, in a perfect world, better coincide with how quickly the business world is able to accomplish goals. This includes collaboration between education and business realms to better understand needs. 

“We need to make sure that what we’re teaching in the classroom will get students jobs (when they graduate),” Childers said.

Mike Harvey, chief operation officer at Northwest Arkansas Council, said the Council is in the middle of a regional workforce assessment, which will aggregate the region’s workforce needs and gauge the region’s ability to fulfill those needs.

“People have always been an important consideration in economic development, but workforce is at the top of the list with almost every company we deal with now,” Harvey said. “Talent drives the growth of startups, the expansion of existing businesses, and serves as a magnet for companies evaluating the region for a new location. Regions that don’t identify and effectively address workforce development as the No. 1 issue will become also-rans in less than a generation.”

Another summit session included Dr. Tim Hodges, director of the Education Research for Gallup Inc. He addressed several issues, including the perceived lack of faith in public schools, and a decrease in student engagement as they move from elementary through high school.