Legislative panel advocates for workforce czar

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 526 views 

A newly appointed legislative workforce panel addressed the issue of tremendous gaps in communication around the state pertaining to industry labor needs on Wednesday (Nov. 15) at the Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit in Springdale.

Roby Brock, the CEO of Talk Business & Politics, moderated a panel discussion with the group, which included four elected legislators and one representative from industry with ties to education.

Brock asked the legislators what it was going to take to move the needle in Arkansas around the serious gaps in the workforce which threaten the growth of Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the state.

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said there are good programs addressing workforce challenges at the local level around the state, but they are disconnected to other regions and overall there is not a focused effort. Brock asked the panel if perhaps a workforce czar was needed at the state level.

“I support the idea of a workforce czar and it would need to be someone from industry, not government in that role,” said English, who has been a stalwart for workforce education around the state for decades. “We are losing people to retirement and we have a low labor participation rate of 52%, and that’s a lot of folks who are in the workforce. How do we get those people back? We don’t want to continue to set up the pipeline for prisons and Medicaid.”

Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, said at the state level 92% of the state’s budget is spent on Medicaid, education and prisons. He said more intervention is needed early on to bridge the workforce gaps that could reduce the need for Medicaid over time.

“We have companies starving for talent and they can’t grow because they don’t have the needed workforce,” he said. “We have to talk more about the opportunities for kids who don’t want to go to college.”

English said she recently returned from Germany where she learned a great deal about possible ways to tackle the workforce constraints being felt across the state and nation. She said German students are far more responsible for their education than in the U.S. She said they are exposed early on to two tracks — college or trade — and industry takes the lead role in training and testing for the trades.

“This is a model we could learn from or possibly tweak for ourselves,” she said.

Mike Rogers of Tyson Foods, also a panelist, said he spent 20 years as an educator in the trades before the company hired him to oversee its internal training program. He said one thing that can’t easily be outsourced is technical services, which have to be done regularly in manufacturing trades. He said many of the pieces to solve the complicated workforce puzzle are in place, but the connections are not being made.

Rogers said too often food processing and industrial jobs look like secondary careers, and that has to change because there is a vast demand for those jobs and the supply of talent just doesn’t match. He challenged the room full of educators and business professionals to do an acid test of their own.

“As you guide your own children, have you said it’s okay to have craft or skill [jobs]? Tell them it’s okay to get that first and then work their way to college if they want. We need to be graduating 25-year-old college kids that also have several years of work training under their belt,” Rogers said.

He said the goal of the new task force is the access that is already being done around the state, and to look for ways to transport those and connect more educators to industry.

“We don’t need more legislation — we need people acting on the ground,” Rogers said.

Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, agreed there are success pockets around the state. He said the local chambers of commerce in Northwest Arkansas who sit down regularly to address workforce challenges is a model much of the rest of the state could follow.

He recently visited NorthWest Arkansas Community College’s Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville, and said workers there use a system imported from their work in Europe, which bifurcates into work and higher education tracks with much of the curriculum blended. He said the University of Arkansas has a real opportunity to change the paradigm with respect to economic development through workforce initiatives.

“This region is blessed with human and monetary capital to effect real change in this area,” Sanders said.

Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, said the Northwest Arkansas Council did a study that looked at the business needs over the next 15 to 20 years and found many careers may not require a four-year college degree. He said a county trade school has been discussed in Benton County between various school districts that can share resources such as teachers and equipment that could benefit students in several districts.

When asked by an educator why industry isn’t willing to help students pay for the training, or get to and from Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale and NWACC in Bentonville, which now falls solely on the high school student’s shoulders, Eads said nothing should be off the table.

“We need to have these conversations,” he said.

English agreed the answer lies somewhere with public and private partnerships.

“We have a lot of boards and commissions but we don’t have a group of industry folks like Mike Rogers sitting around a table telling them what they need,” English added.

One educator in the audience said in the past there have been times when an industry said it needed a particular skill. Schools ramped up to teach the trade, only to find out there were a limited number of jobs locally, and graduates had to relocate to Kansas or Texas to do that line of work.

“How do we make sure we are not educating a workforce that will leave Arkansas because we don’t have the jobs for them,” he said.

Sanders said that’s a legitimate concern because educators and the state don’t need to develop talent that will have to be exported. He said communication between educators on the ground and industry to forecast demand is one way to try and ensure students in the trades have jobs when they get the certification.

Brock challenged the panel to get the ball moving.

“Jane, you and I have been talking about this issue for 25 years and there has been very little done statewide at a time when demands are continuing to grow. I would like to see action taken,” Brock said.

Following the panel discussion, Perry Webb, CEO of THE Springdale Chamber of Commerce, addressed the educators AND industry leaders over lunch. He said workforce has been a topic of concern in the local region for the past five or six years.

Webb said 25% of high school graduates don’t go to college, and there needs to be a pathway for them to move right into the workforce and then add college later if they so desire.

He said a high school senior who graduates high school and starts to work in the trades the following Monday and works their way up can have a $1 million earnings impact over a lifetime. Webb said one of the issues the local leaders have entailed is industry may not know exactly what type of talent they are going to need until six weeks before they need it, which makes it harder to plan.

“The only way to fix that is kept the conversation flowing between industry and educators. In the six years we have been engaged, we have problem moved this mountain by one foot. But more people are talking and that’s what it takes” Webb said.

He said a recent study done by nine trade schools in the state around diesel mechanics indicated the state turns out between 40 and 50 annually, about a dozen in Northwest Arkansas. The need is 150 today and will likely triple over the next decade.

“Diesel mechanics can earn as much as a school teacher right out of the gate if they have the right certification,” Webb said. “So how do we measure the supply of students with the aptitude for this trade and steer them in that direction …. No one has really figured it all out but there is more people working on it.”

Webb said in talking with Mike Rogers, who has been at ground zero on the workforce issue for two decades as an educator and now in industry, the two wonder if perhaps there’s the possibility of a tax credit being available for industry that provides funding and equipment to trade schools and junior colleges to help grow workforce training.

“I don’t know if a tax credit is possible, but it probably ought to be considered,” Webb said.