The prevailing wisdom for at least two generations for graduating high school seniors is college is the path to a high paying job.
That formula has led to trillions of dollars of student loan debt, and there are many high paying jobs that don’t require an expensive college degree, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, told Talk Business and Politics. Crawford is touring the First Congressional District this week, visiting industries and manufacturers.
Crawford visited Hytrol, a conveyor belt manufacturer, in Jonesboro on Monday. He led a delegation of local educators from high schools and colleges in the area. The goal was to bring industry leaders and educators together so each better understands how to create more skilled workers, Crawford said.
“We’re in a transition period … not everyone is destined for college out of high school,” Crawford said. “We’ve got to develop our vocational and apprenticeship programs.”
Educators from Black River Technical College, the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville, Arkansas State University, the Hoxie School District, Nettleton, and others participated in the tour.
Hytrol President David Peacock told Talk Business and Politics his company’s number one problem going forward will be finding skilled workers. Welders and machinists are in high demand, he said. The company’s highest paying customer, Amazon, did about $1 million in sales with Hytrol in 2015. That amount has jumped to $30 million this year, fueled by the electronic commerce boom that has enveloped the country, Peacock said.
To meet those demands, the company had to hire about 30 new welders in the last several weeks. The company employs 75 welders at their Jonesboro plant. Finding and situating that many skilled workers was an enormous task, and if projections hold, more will have to be hired, he said. Hytrol employs more than a 1,000 workers at their Jonesboro plant, according to information released by the company. It’s a global provider of conveyor belts. The 500,000-square-foot plant has been in operation in Jonesboro since 1962.
A welder can make $40,000 to $50,000 per year depending upon how much they want to work, and will receive a generous compensation package, including health insurance and paid holidays. A welding certificate takes far less time than a traditional college degree and costs far less, he said. Machinists can also earn a similar salary and are in high demand, Peacock said.
Today’s students lack a lot of fundamental, vocational skills that previous generations possessed. Many cannot read a standard tape measure, because they are used to digital clocks, he said. Hytrol is projected to triple its business in the next 14 years, Peacock said. It’s good news and bad at the same time. Finding trained workers will be a challenge, he said.
“We recognize that people will be our biggest challenge moving forward,” he said. “Not everyone needs to go to college. You can do very well here and make a career here without going to college,” he said.
Vocational training must expand, but there are other educational areas that need to be addressed, Crawford said. The congressman is also promoting an educational concept, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. Part of the rationale for the tour was to allow educators to see how desperately industries need workers with training in these disciplines, he said.
His industrial site visits came in the midst of a major announcement concerning STEM education from the region’s largest university. ASU announced Monday it received a $50,000 grant from the DENSO North American Foundation to equip a laboratory with digital fabrication technologies, including a desktop computer numerical control or CNC mill and three dimensional printers. Assistant Professor of Physics Ross Carroll wrote the grant.
“An A-State student could rapidly create a miniature bridge for an experiment in stress testing, a custom circuit board for high-altitude ballooning, or a scale model of bacterium,” Carroll said. “The possibilities afforded by these tools are endless and will provide students with engaging learning experiences for many years to come.”
Crawford isn’t touting new legislation to help pay for additional programs or training a this time, he said. The purpose of the tour is to marshal the resources already available in the district to build a more skilled and diverse workforce, he said.
“It’s vital that we develop our workforce and keep them here,” Crawford said.