Economic development officials tout education, skills and ‘soft skills’ training

by Michael Wilkey ([email protected]) 146 views 

Arkansas State University Vice President for University Relations Shane Broadway said Thursday (Feb. 25) that a meeting of educators and economic development was about one key goal.

“It is about creating better opportunities for our students,” Broadway said of the P-20 town hall.

The meeting, the first of its kind, was sponsored by ASU and held at Centennial Hall on the campus.

Broadway said recent economic numbers were shocking, including 15,419 students in the state who graduated from high school last year (2015) but were not going to college or getting training.

“How do we address those 15,000 students have a better life,” Broadway asked the group.

The discussion over “Workforce Needs of Business and Industry” featured Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President Randy Zook and economic development officials from Jonesboro, Mississippi County, Newport, Paragould, Phillips County and West Memphis.

Zook said there is a paradox going on in the state, with jobs remaining vacant because of a lack of skills among employees. The jobs include welding, computer coding and other industries with salaries at about $50,000, Zook said. Zook also quoted a Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation study that showed 70% of the jobs in the state require less than a high school diploma.

“This is a great opportunity for us to tackle,” Zook said.

Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce President Mark Young said the issue is something people around the nation are facing, especially with older demographics and increased skills needed to do work. Young said Craighead County has a 3.8% unemployment rate and companies look at the skills issue constantly. Newport chamber official Jon Chadwell said getting an education can help weather any economic downturn.

“Does education make a difference? You bet it does,” Chadwell said. “Does college education make a difference? You better believe it.”

Chadwell said there is sometimes tension in families if a child goes to college, especially when a child moves away and leaves town. However, community colleges can help with the issue, Chadwell said, noting going to college can build a person’s life.

Sue McGowan, CEO of the Paragould Regional Chamber of Commerce, said soft skills are a hard problem to deal with. McGowan said the idea of putting in a five-day work week as well as showing up on time can be foreign to some students. McGowan said the local chamber is working to help the students learn the soft skills and meet business leaders.

The chamber has a tuition reimbursement program as well as a program that brings company owners to area schools to talk to students, McGowan told the group.

“It is not boring speeches. It is loud,” McGowan said of the meetings.

Clif Chitwood, executive director of the Great River Economic Development Group, said the key was making sure basic skills are there. Hesaid there needs to be an emphasis on skills and a de-emphasis on the “all importance of getting a four-year degree.” Mississippi County has a 6.1% unemployment rate, while the First Congressional District is on pace to being the largest steel producing district in the country, Chitwood said.

“How many people with heating and air certification do you that are out of work?” Chitwood said, noting the importance of skills.

Chitwood said there also is a battle among people who have given up looking for work.

“It is fueling the debate in our politics,” Chitwood said of the apathy. “It is also fueling the debate over what is right and what is wrong.”

West Memphis Chamber Executive Director Holmes Hammett said ASU-Mid South has worked with Memphis-based FedEx for several years to create a workforce training program. The program will train students in aircraft maintenance, with a training facility at the West Memphis airport. FedEx brought the shell of an old Boeing 727 aircraft to West Memphis and donated $250,000 to build a technical center. ASU-Mid South Chancellor Dr. Debra West said classes will begin this fall, with room for 175 students. The program will have about 105 students to begin, with rooms for growth.