Arkansas’ chief executive says those who have been “missing” from the workforce since the Great Recession began in 2008 are beginning to return, and he wants to do more to encourage their return to help employers who struggle to find good help.
Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics updated its “alternative measures of labor underutilization,” or U-6 rate, for states for the second quarter of 2017, which looks at the unemployed population in the official “U-3 unemployment rate” as wells as the underemployed and those not looking but wanting a job.
The U-6 rate for Arkansas through the second quarter 2017 was 6.8%, well below the national rate of 8.9%. Nationally, 1.6 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force in July, down by 321,000 from a year earlier. Of that total, there were also 536,000 discouraged workers in July, essentially unchanged over the year.
Mentioning those marginally attached and discouraged workers specifically, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said a key goal of his administration’s workforce initiatives has been to bring those “missing” workers back in to the workforce.
“We are still moving people into the labor force. That has been a goal for a long time – that those people who left the labor force during the recession are saying, ‘This is a good time to return.’ There is opportunity out there that justify (those workers) going back into the work force full-time. The pay is good and so that is very, very encouraging and has been a long-standing goal of mine.”
NEED ‘ROOM TO GROW’
Hutchinson said in addition to those marginally attached and discouraged now coming back to work, there are other areas for the state’s fast-growing labor pool to expand. In particular, the governor said new industry coming into the state have a great need for talented professionals and highly-skilled workers at all levels.
“We always want room to grow. We’ve got new industry coming into the state. They are hiring out there and we have to have a labor force that can fill those jobs. And so, that has to come by either people moving into the state, which is terrific … but secondly, it has to be those previously discouraged workers that return to the workforce.”
Hutchinson also said that has to continue to better prepare “chronically-unemployed” workers who lack job training to get factory and manufacturing positions that require computer and other technical skills. Site consultants and workforce experts have said Arkansas’ lack of a highly-trained workforce was one of the reasons Arkansas is the last Southern state to not land an auto manufacturing plant.
Arkansas is one of the states in the running for a $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda plant expected to churn out some 300,000 next-generation connected cars of the future by 2021.
“It’s been nice that some of the national publications have indicated that Arkansas is on a short list of states being considered,” Hutchinson said when asked if the state is participating in the secretive bidding process for the futuristic auto plant. “Beyond that, I can’t say anything about it.”
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, recently addressed the workforce shortage issue during a Tuesday speech at the Pine Bluff Rotary Club. The 4th District Congressman said he frequently hears from employers who have good-paying jobs open but can’t find anyone to fill the positions.
Westerman said some of the issues inhibiting an expanded workforce are societal, sometimes beyond what tax or education policy can immediately address.
“I’ve traveled across my district and I started hearing this right after I got elected. I would ask people, ‘How’s business?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, business is good.’ And then they would say, ‘You know we would like to add a second shift to double our production, if we can. We would like to add on to our facility.’ And, I would say, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ And they’d say, ‘Because we can’t find labor to do it.’ I’d say, ‘We need better vocational and technical training programs.’ They said, ‘Yeah, that would be great, but if you can get somebody to pass the drug test, show up for work on time and show up consistently, we’ll train ’em how to do the job.’’
Westerman said he hears from employers in south Arkansas and the Pine Bluff area who would hire more people if they could find them.
“I was down in South Arkansas with some oil producers and they were telling me the roughnecks working out on the rigs are starting at $25 and $30 an hour and they can work as much overtime as they want, so you’re talking about a $70,000 or $80,000 a year jobs,” Westerman told the Rotary audience. “I have gone into manufacturing facilities where they’ve got $20 an hour plus jobs and these aren’t just minimum wage jobs, these are good paying jobs that people can have a career out of, that they can raise their family on, that they can build communities on and I know that those jobs exist around here in Jefferson County and there could be even more of them, as well.”
Editor’s note: KATV Channel 7 in Little Rock, a content partner with Talk Business & Politics, contributed to this report.