A skilled workforce, education and economic development are intrinsically tied together, with a group working with Arkansas State University to tie those goals together for economies in east Arkansas.
Nearly a dozen groups announced the creation of a regional initiative that will seek to use partnerships and promotion to build workforce goals. At least 60 people attended the kickoff of the East Arkansas WorkReady Initiative at the Arkansas State University Cooper Alumni Center.
The plan calls for local chambers, elected officials, colleges, business leaders and economic development officials to meet graduation and attainment goals by 2035. A key part of the initiative involves adding to the number of students with National Career Readiness Certificates, officials said at the meeting. The program will also gauge training and skills among emerging job seekers, transitional job seekers and current job seekers.
In order to become certified, a person must first take a practice test to measure their job skills. From there, the person can take a proctored test to become certified, officials said. The certification is done in gold, silver and bronze.
David Barch, the director of programs for the Workforce Development Board of Eastern Arkansas, said Northeast Arkansas has three of the top five counties in the state in the number of people with career readiness certificates. Craighead County has about 6,300 people, while Greene County has over 5,100 and Crittenden County has nearly 3,000, Barch said.
Wynne/Cross County Chamber President Chris Clifton said the program is crucial for the area’s survival. Recent studies have shown that 70% of the jobs created in the next 10 years will involve skilled labor, Clifton said, adding that companies often look at workforce training and education “often before anything else.” Companies also look at what is taught at some of the lower grades, especially with STEM and advanced placement classes.
“Many times, they want to know what is being taught in Carl Easley’s 7th, 8th and 9th grade classes,” Clifton said of the Wynne Junior High teacher.
There are now five counties working on the initiative – Craighead, Cross, Mississippi, Phillips and Randolph. However, the program will be expanded to Clay, Crittenden, Greene, Lawrence, Lee, Poinsett and St. Francis counties early next year, said East Arkansas Planning and Development executive director Melissa Rivers.
Rivers said workforce development has been a key goal of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), with state agencies working on the complex issue. In a video, Hutchinson said attaining a WorkReady status can lead to a student meeting their career goals. Hutchinson also said the initiative brings together businesses and colleges to meet specific needs.
Delta Regional Authority co-chair Chris Masingill, who attended the meeting, said work on the project was hard, with people committed to the principle. He said one of the things he has learned is that economic development, education and workforce training are as “tied together now as ever before.” Economic developers are competing in a worldwide battle, with it no longer being a local or regional competition, Masingill said.
The skills gap is real, Masingill said, noting nearly 1 million jobs in the United States and 100,000 jobs in the region not being filled because of a lack of training. Masingill said the initiative will help to narrow the skills gap, with the program being taught in junior high school. The program will also help economic developers sell a skilled workforce to interested companies.
Another problem is the demonization of so-called life skills for the past 30 years, Masingill said.
“We are not going to build the economy on the backs of sociology majors,” Masingill said, noting many of the manufacturing jobs in the United States have moved to the South in recent years.