Arkansas officials attempt to find solutions to future labor problems

by George Jared ([email protected]) 413 views 

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce encountered a new and potentially serious problem that could hurt the state’s jobs market when they toured the Remington Arms Company Inc. in Lonoke about a year ago.

Chamber Director of Governmental Affairs Andrew Parker talked with managers at the plant. Sales were robust, but a problem loomed. Within four years, one-fourth of the highly skilled manufacturing force at the plant was set to retire, and the company was struggling with finding replacements. It’s one of the most serious issues that will affect the Arkansas’ jobs market in the foreseeable future.

“I don’t think we can accurately quantify how big a deal this is … we already know it’s a problem, and it’s going to get much worse,” Parker told Talk Business & Politics.

Highly trained vocational workers – welders, machinists, and others – are high in demand, but many high school students still feel compelled to go the traditional route after school and seek a bachelor’s degree at a traditional college, Parker said. The chamber is sponsoring at least 12 young manufacturer academies across the state to expose manufacturing jobs to at least 300 junior high school students. The academies are being held at two-year colleges across the state, according to the chamber. Many were held earlier in August, but several will be held once the new public school term begins next week, Parker said. The point of the academies is to take students to actual manufacturing facilities and let them have a real life experience learning about jobs they might want to do in the future. The program is free to the students.

“Focus group after focus group told us the same thing … students want us to tell them what (the job) looks like, what it feels like, and they want to be told what they will be expected to do,” Parker said.

This is the third year the academies have been held statewide. More than $100,000 will be awarded to the schools involved, and it will be spent on the academies and possible scholarships for students seeking vocational degrees. The Gene Haas Foundation donated the lion’s share of the money.

“The young manufacturers’ academies are a valuable and important part of sharing with young people the opportunities that exist and the skill sets needed in today’s manufacturing world,” Haas Factory Outlet Vice President for Sales Michael Garners said in a release.

The experience is eye opening, and the income potential is jaw dropping, Parker said. High school students who pursue a manufacturing vocation career, jobs in the truck driving industry or in construction can make a lot of money – quickly. With those skills a student can ascend the management ladder at most companies and before they’re 30 years old, those ambitious students could be making a six-figure salary, Parker said. And, those who are even more ambitious can start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs, he added.

Developing a better educated, more highly trained workforce is going to be critical if the state plans to flourish economically in the upcoming decades. A study conducted by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation found that Arkansas had 1.57 million jobs in 2013, and during the next decade the state is forecast to add 148,000 more jobs, a 9.5% increase. And, another 400,000 workers will have to be replaced, according to the study.

There is a problem, however. By 2030 the number of service jobs that only require a high school diploma or less will top 70% of the jobs market in Arkansas, if the trend lines don’t change. Those types of jobs pay less, and the state’s economy will almost certainly stagnate, Parker said. The key is to develop a better trained, better educated workforce, Parker said. Companies that require those types of workers congregate to states and communities where that type of workforce is available, he said.

Postsecondary education levels in Arkansas have improved since the Great Recession ransacked the economy in 2008. At least 42,000 residents received postsecondary degrees in 2013, a spike of 25.6% since 2009, according to the survey. Those with these degrees typically earn more money during their working careers, Parker said.

Chamber officials began the “Be Pro Be Proud” program in March to educate school age students about the virtues of professional vocational careers. The chamber uses a 44-foot long expendable trailer that has a virtual, vocational workplace set inside it. Students can touch and use the implements that might use in one of those jobs if they chose that profession, Parker said. The trailer has toured the state in recent months, and is a vital tool in the struggle to raise the wage and living standards in the state, Parker said.

“These are serious issues we need to solve,” he said.