A State Chamber of Commerce-led public-private partnership unveiled a new workforce initiative Tuesday with the help of Gov. Asa Hutchinson that is aimed at shrinking the “skills gap” that exists between Arkansas’ growing labor pool and industry and economic development prospects.
Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, introduced the “Be Pro Be Proud” before a crowd of about 100 business and government officials gathered at the downtown Statehouse Convention Center, calling the new statewide initiative a “noble effort” to address the state’s workforce challenges.
“This important and extraordinary effort will pave the way to help Arkansas’ young people make better decisions about career opportunities available to them and how to better prepare for those opportunities,” Zook said.
In explaining the need for the new public-private partnership, the Chamber chief said the state’s skilled professional workforce is aging and the next generation of new talent is not sufficient to meet industry demand. He said the state’s “skills gap” – especially in manufacturing – has widened in the past decade and the pipeline of workers in Arkansas and across the U.S. is not adequate to fill the pressing need.
‘MAGNETS FOR ECONOMIC ACTIVITY’
According to statistics provided by the Chamber, there are an estimated 5.6 million job openings nationwide, with approximately 60,000 of these unfilled positions in Arkansas in highly skilled technical fields.
“This debate about workforce issues is taking place across U.S., and the stakes could not be higher,” Zook said. “The states and communities that address this issue in a meaningful and comprehensive way, … will be magnets for economic activity, and will generate growth and prosperity unlike anything we have experienced in decades.”
Zook said the problem in filling technical positions can be directly attributed to a lack of knowledge, interest and preparation. The jobs, he said, make up a vast majority of the manufacturing sector and represents more than 90% of Arkansas’s exports, and are a cornerstone of the state’s economy. In addition, Zook said, industries such as construction and trucking also are struggling to find qualified technical professionals.
Setting the stage for the launch of the new statewide program, Zook said a “casual conservation” that began three years ago with state leaders in education, workforce services and business leaders has now evolved into the most important workplace issue since the State Chamber opened its doors over a century ago.
“The skills gap … has widened with increasing speed over the past several years. Companies have jobs they cannot fill while people cannot find jobs they want and can do,” Zook said. “An increasing number of our most skilled employees are retiring and there is not an adequate of prepared individuals to fill that void.”
SKILLED TRADES NECESSARY FOR JOB RECRUITMENT
To address that program, the new initiative will target many key audiences – including high school and nontraditional students, skilled professionals, legislators, parents, teachers, career coaches and employers – to dispel the myths about skilled trade professions. The program will initially showcase career opportunities available within 12-highly skilled professionals within the technical trade area, such as machinists, welders and commercial truck drivers, and provide necessary resources and training to those interested.
Gov. Hutchinson, on the podium with Zook, Walmart executive Cindi Marsiglio, and Chris Masingill, co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, said he was delighted to support the initiative and thanked the State Chamber for leading the effort to “brand” the idea of job skill training for young people who are not necessarily interesting in going to college.
“I assure that I get a lot of economic development calls …, and there is not a conversation with an economic development prospect that we don’t talk about the quality of worker in Arkansas and the job skills that they have,” the governor told the pro-business audience.
He said Arkansas cannot increase the state’s job base without making the case to outside industry that the state has the necessary training and tools workers to meet the needs of businesses across the globe.
“This program helps us accomplish that objective,” Hutchinson said.
In collaboration with the State Chamber, the Delta Regional Authority, Walmart, Truck Centers of Arkansas, Arkansas Trucking Association, Associated General Contractors of America-Arkansas, Nucor Steel, Entergy, Welsco, Haas Automation, Pace Industries, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, and the Arkansas Department of Career Education, have voiced their support for this initiative, including providing financial support of the campaign.
“Walmart’s investment in domestic manufacturing education and experience will help create additional jobs not just in Arkansas, but throughout the United States, and that’s good for American businesses and our local communities,” said Marsiglio, vice president of U.S. Sourcing and Manufacturing at Walmart. “Walmart is proud to play a large role in the communities we serve.”
Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, also said the launch of the new program will aid economic development efforts in the Delta region and help to attract better-paying jobs to depressed areas of the state.
“As we are seeing more and more companies come back to America and locate in the Mid-South, our communities must have a skilled and abundant workforce to attract jobs and support businesses as they grow in our region,” Masingill said. “This initiative will provide students, families, and community leaders in Arkansas’s Delta region with the information and inspiration to obtain technical skills and career training that meets the needs of businesses and industries to attract good-paying jobs to Delta Communities.”
At the hour-long event in Little Rock, the “Be Pro Be Proud” initiative also unveiled a hi-tech mobile unit to travel the state and visit companies, schools and events to showcase skilled trade professions and broaden awareness of their impact on our state’s workforce. Zook said the “Be Arkansas Pro” mobile unit will provide information about training resources, currently available positions and descriptions, skills needed, and how to start the process of starting a skilled professional career.
The initiative also has a website, BeProBeProud.org, which serves as a content hub for young professionals to learn more and even find training and job opportunities. Employers may also use the site to actively engage students, skilled trade professionals can become ambassadors and work with students to spur interest, and parents and educators can arm themselves with the necessary materials for encouraging students to learn about potential career opportunities. Social media channels designed to help keep top-of-mind awareness about the need for skilled professionals will also support the initiative and provide relevant updates during the campaign.
HUTCHINSON: ‘TURNED CORNER’ ON WORKFORCE ISSUES
After the news conference announcing the event, Hutchinson said he believes the state has made major strides on being able to sell to economic development prospects that Arkansas’ workforce is capable of being trained to compete with other states and countries on a global scale.
Going back to the Toyota plant super project during the Huckabee administration over a decade ago to the $30 billion Lockheed Martin Joint Light Tactical Vehicle bidding contest that went to Oshkosh Defense in Wisconsin, questions have been raised as to if the state’s workforce has the technical and innovative technology skills to compete for such jobs.
Hutchinson, on Tuesday, pointed to his sweeping economic development initiative launched at the beginning of his administration that he said represented a fundamental shift in the state’s workforce development efforts. In April, he signed three workforce development bills that he called the foundation of his efforts to retool state job recruitment efforts.
“Without a question, we have turned a corner,” Hutchinson said in response to a question concerning the state workforce travails. “We have the training programs in place, we have the partnerships with industry, we have the investments – and companies recognize that. … I don’t see that as an impediment at all — in fact I now see the (labor force) as an advantage for this state, and obviously, we want to continue to grow in that area.”
Hutchinson added: “I am pleased with progress we’ve made and the response we are getting from industry.”