Workforce development continues to be a focus for Arkansas’ state and local officials amid a record low 3.9% state unemployment rate and 2.4% in the Northwest Arkansas metro area.
More than 60 educators in Springdale collaborated with local business leaders in the first Academy for Career Educators in Springdale on Monday (June 6) in hopes of creating a better prepared workforce. Monday’s event featured Gov. Asa Hutchinson who opened the academy which will continue through Wednesday (June 9).
Hutchinson said workforce development and having a skilled talent pool is critical to the ongoing growth of this region and the state.
“It’s important today and will be even more important for generations to come,” he said. “Workforce quality is top of the conversation for any company operating here or looking to locate to Arkansas. It goes well beyond basic skills, many need a workforce with some level of technical training before they will agree to invest.”
He said for too long the focus on many families was to send their children to college, when there have been other opportunities in the trades. While Hutchinson said college is important it’s not the only way one can earn a good living and provide for their family. He said there needs to be a balance of college bound and trades education.
Hutchinson said there is not enough being done in Arkansas in workforce development. He said there were 20 career centers available to Arkansas students in 2004, and today they are 40, but still there are areas of deficiency as more work and access is needed.
“While 75% of high school students are enrolled in a career technical education class, there are 25 of 75 counties that don’t have a career center,” he said.
One of the reasons Hutchinson is advocating for workforce education is because many trades from construction to industrial manufacturing provide wages which can raise the state’s lagging per capita income, which is often only higher than neighboring Mississippi.
Perry Webb, CEO of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, host of the 3-day event, said there’s a gap of 20% of Springdale High School graduates who often get lost in the shuffle and they could be directed toward the trades while in high school to give them more options upon graduation. He said just earning $2 more per hour could be a $1 million change to a life in 50 years.
“Quite honestly communities have lost that focus on helping industry recruit tomorrow’s workforce, a skill set is constantly changing,” Webb said. “The chamber’s role here is to be a conduit to help bring educators with industry to solve workforce gaps.”
Webb said the chamber received three grants from local industry and their foundations — AT&T, Alcoa and Cargill — to help bring information about the benefits of trade careers to high school students in programs like this week’s Academy.
Ted Abernathy, founder of North Carolina-based Economic Leadership LLC, has worked with the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Springdale chamber on the issue of workforce development for several years. Abernathy spoke to the group on the changing employment landscape and the economics that are driving the transition.
He said wages are relatively stagnant because there is a surplus of talent in the world. Given the world is flat and interconnected it’s easy to get someone in India to write software or manage a data base and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Abernathy shared a set of “future skills” that employers of all types will be looking for in the future on top of the basic requirements of integrity, work ethic and communication competencies: Social intelligence, cross cultural competitiveness, cognitive load management (ability to handle high levels of stress), technical integration (using technology to make tasks easier), intellectual agility, and learning passion.
He said technology is rapidly changing the workplace and by 2025 there will likely be five generations active in the workforce so cross generational programs are also a possibility.
Five local businesses took part in a panel discussion at Monday’s event. Cargill, Kawneer, APAC, South Coast Banking and Tyson Foods each said they have open jobs in the trades they can not keep filled.
“It’s easy to get a job, it’s not easy to get a career but solid careers are possible in any of the trades,” Darren Taylor, operations manager for South Coast Baking in Springdale.
South Coast Banking employs 150 in Springdale and will soon ramp up to add another 100 to its local cookie making business. A Tyson Foods’ representative said the company was at a loss for technical workers like someone who could take care of a plant’s oil maintenance with a starting pay at $60,000 annually.
All the industry leaders describe a skills gaps between the job candidates they see and open positions they have. Some of those gaps include a lack of basic math, computation ability and low reading cognition. None of the industries in the panel require a college degree to work in their local operations. All agreed that hiring the right people is the hardest part of their jobs.
Julie Lawrence, human resource director for Cargill’s Springdale plant, said hiring the wrong person for a job costs the company about $5,000. If it’s a management position the cost is typically two to three times their salary. For instance hiring a $50,000 manager who doesn’t stay with the company for two years will likely mean $100,000 to $150,000 in costs to replace and train another candidate.
Springdale educators asked the industry employers about ways they can help inform local students about the opportunities that exist in manufacturing and construction without a college degree. Industry leaders all said they are committed to whatever it takes to increase the talent pool including to help educate parents about the opportunities that exist in trade careers.
Darren Taylor, operations manager for the South Coast Baking plant in Springdale, grew up in London the son of a baker, a job he never wanted. He went to art school but quickly found out he could not make money until he was dead if he sought out a career as an artist. Taylor went back to help his father and trained as baker and has worked all over the world before coming to the United States about 10 years ago.
Educators will tour several plants around Springdale over the next two days to see those operations and get a better feel for the skill sets needed for those jobs.