Efforts to attract higher paying jobs to the Northeast Arkansas metro, and to better educate the workforce, are starting to bear fruit. The 2017 median income for the Jonesboro metro is $48,929, a 15% spike since 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Northeast Arkansas’ hub city has had a relatively robust economy in recent years. The unemployment rate in the city’s metro area has hovered at 4% or lower for several years, and other economic indicators such as sales tax collection receipts, city GDP growth and building permits have reached historically positive marks. One area that had been lagging, median income growth, has been a focus of business and civic leaders.
The city had the fourth-highest increase in median income in the country, according to the American Community Survey. The only cities to have a higher jump were Grants Pass, Ore. (20%), Laredo, Texas (19.5%) and Punta Gorda, Fla. (15.8%). The metro’s median income is about $3,000 above the state median income. The metro includes Craighead and Poinsett counties.
In the past three years Jonesboro Unlimited (JU), a private-public partnership, has executed a plan to raise the area’s income levels. JU Vice President of Economic Development Michael Downing said the organization is pleased with the wage growth, but there is more to do. Other major cities in the state such as Little Rock ($53,173) and Fayetteville ($56,038) and nearby Memphis, Tenn. ($50,984), boast higher median incomes. Complacency is not an option for local business and civic leaders, he said.
“This is exciting news for our growing city,” said Mark Young, Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce and JU president and CEO. “We have seen tremendous job growth in Jonesboro Unlimited’s targeted industries. … The fact that household incomes are rising and these industries are hiring is no coincidence.”
TARGETED JOB SECTORS
A primary factor in wage growth has been the recent expansions at St. Bernards and NEA Baptist hospitals, Young said. The two health systems continue to add high-paid employees, and it has been a boon to the region.
Development of the wage growth plan began in 2015 when a consulting firm, Avalanche Consulting, conducted an economic growth study. Five business sectors were identified with the best growth potential. Agriculture, advanced manufacturing, logistics, healthcare and professional services such as engineering, information technology (IT) and accounting became the focus, Young said.
The goal is to broaden the talented worker pipeline in the region. Existing and potential new businesses always want to know the educational level of the potential workforce, he said. The initial goal was to attract 2,500 direct jobs and 2,600 indirect jobs to the region. The goal is to create jobs that pay at least $42,000 per year. A strategic plan, Momentum Jonesboro, was launched, and $3.7 million was raised to push the plan forward.
Agriculture and related businesses are a natural fit for Jonesboro. The area is dominated by rice, soybean and cotton farms. Food processing has become a significant industry sector in the region, and it makes sense to expand on that base, Young said. One manufacturing sector to be targeted is pharmaceutical production. Most pharmaceuticals are manufactured in the Northeast, but many companies are searching for new places to make their products, Young said. The city has low utility rates that could entice these industries to move to Arkansas or encourage others to expand, he said.
Jonesboro’s location and the recent designations of sections of the former U.S. 63 as Interstate 555, and U.S. 67 as Future Interstate 57 as freeways could make the city a logistics titan in the Mid-south, Young said. Two of the area’s largest employers, St. Bernards and the NEA Baptist Health System, have transformed the city into a healthcare hub, with an array of clinics and other facilities that lure thousands to the city each day. Expansion on this front will be key to future economic development, Young said.
One major manufacturer, Hefei Risever Machinery (Risever), a Chinese-based heavy equipment parts manufacturer, broke ground on a $20 million facility in Jonesboro in June. The plant is located in the Craighead Technology Park on C.W. Post Road and will employ 130 workers. Risever General Manager Yonggang Lai said the decision to build the plant in Jonesboro was based on a number of factors. The presence of Arkansas State University, labor costs, logistics, nearness to customers and the proximity of rail lines and highway access from the plant site were among the top considerations. The 125,000-square-foot facility is slated to be complete in the summer of 2019. However, the average wage is the plant will be $18 per hour, or just a little over $37,000 a year based on a 40-hour work week.
Professional services development will play a critical role in the coming years, Young said. Engineering, IT and accounting will be the primary focus. Part of the process will involve educating middle and high school students so they are aware of the expectations and opportunities of professions before they enter college or other post-secondary training. It’s often referred to as “career mapping.”
Partnerships have been developed with the school systems, and some students have even helped to create the “delivery systems” used to inform other students. The rationale for including selected students in this process is simple, Young said.
A new Jonesboro Unlimited website has also been launched. The user friendly site has information for businesses interested in locating in the city or region, Young said. Economic data, available buildings and sites, incentives, living and working conditions, and other information will be provided on the site.
Downing said his organization begins each day with the goal of recruiting, retaining and training the region’s workforce. JU has been in talks with businesses that want to locate or expand in Jonesboro, but he said he could not divulge the details of ongoing talks. In the coming years the city will have to focus on quality of life factors to help recruit and retain talented workers, he added.
“It’s a very good sign that we are experiencing growth. … Income growth is a better indication of the wealth of a community,” he said.