The rhetoric about the Arkansas workforce continues to swirl around the difficulty in finding qualified employees, with the blame most often pointed at a failed education system.
At a time when the state is at a record low unemployment rate of 3.7%, the vast majority of Arkansans with any level of training or workforce experience are already employed. The remaining citizens still looking for work are among the least likely to be successful, but the real reasons for this are not part of the discussion.
These 45,000 or so unemployed Arkansans, regardless of their access to training, are likely to be long term unemployed and lack the Common Employability Skills necessary to be successful and productive employees. Because they have historically been last in line for jobs, behind others with both training and workforce experience, they haven’t been called upon to fill the “Skills Gap” until now. When Arkansas had double digit unemployment rates a few years ago with more than 115,000 unemployed citizens, for every job that posted an employer could choose from among a significant number of previously successfully employed Arkansans eager to find work after lay-offs, displacement, or dislocation. Therefore, the current unemployed population in Arkansas hasn’t been given their chance to be first in line for jobs – at least not until now.
Likely, many of us take for granted the Common Employability Skills we gained from years of work experience. These common skills include professional behavior, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. Unfortunately, many such skills required for workforce success are not evident in the population seeking employment today. For example, when was the last time you got in your vehicle to go work and the car didn’t start? It likely never occurred to you not to show up to work that day. For those with Common Employability Skills, this temporary obstacle is easily remedied with a phone call or two and (at worst) might only result in being 15 minutes late for work. Other common obstacles in this population include substance abuse, teen pregnancy, lack of reliable child care, lack of basic reading and math skills, and lack of access to basic services such as preventive health care.
Given the challenges facing the current unemployed population, how do we serve the needs of business and industry and put as many Arkansans to work ASAP?
The primary accessible and affordable training resources for adults are the state’s 22 public community colleges, who offer both technical degree programs and short term, non-college credit, industry-recognized training. These locally based colleges partner with business and industry to develop relevant and specific programs that prepare citizens for jobs in their local area.
Also embedded within these industry-approved training programs are opportunities to learn the basic Common Employability Skills discussed above, as well as academic preparation for the basic reading comprehension and math skills that are lacking in many of today’s unemployed Arkansans. The answer to workforce development is more complicated than just providing technical training. Arkansans need access to a holistic suite of services that prepare them not just for a job, but for long term career success.
Community colleges provide customized workforce training and employability skills training in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner that business and industry partners appreciate and value. Among the hundreds of business and industry partners across the state that support our programs and hire our students are Nabholz Construction, John Deere, Lockheed Martin, Baxter Regional Medical Center, Helena Industries, Rogers Water Utilities, Maverick Transportation, Georgia-Pacific, Dassault Falcon Jet, and Tyson Foods.
Tem Gunter, HR Manager for Tyson’s Nashville Complex said recently, “Over the last few years, our industry has experienced a shift from ‘gearbox and belt’ type repairs to automation technology, specifically PLC troubleshooting and repair. We needed to speed up the investment in technical skills for our industrial maintenance team to keep pace with the changes. The University of Arkansas Cossatot has provided the environment that is enabling us to do just that. We have been successful in mitigating skill shortages due to the advanced training members of our maintenance team receive at the Lockesburg Industrial Maintenance Institute.”
There are some around the state calling for a workforce development model that already exists: that model is the coordination of training between community colleges and industry. The conversation shouldn’t begin with talking about jobs requiring advanced training while today’s unemployed Arkansans lack even basic skills. Instead, it should begin with addressing obstacles impacting one’s ability to be a stable contributor to the workplace.
Now that we have properly set the table for this conversation, why not explore this issue not as an obstacle or a challenge, but rather as an opportunity?
The imbalance between the supply and demand of skilled workers presents long term unemployed Arkansans a chance to be first in line for good paying careers. This segment of the population, which has previously gone untapped, must be provided with technical training and other skills necessary to become successful, thriving contributors to Arkansas’ workforce.
Every day, the 22 public community colleges across the state provide industry with skilled and work-ready employees, but more could be done. However, rather than criticizing an existing education system with demonstrated workforce development success and industry support all across the state, let’s do more to encourage and support expansion of these opportunities to further our state’s economic development and empower our citizens
Editor’s note: Bill Stovall, III has served as the executive director of the Arkansas Community Colleges since Oct. 1, 2013, and he is a former Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives. The opinions expressed are those of the author.