Walton Family Foundation grant to aid workforce training in Fort Smith, Northwest Arkansas

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,359 views 

A robot on the floor of ABB's manufacturing plant in Fort Smith.

Another result of Fort Smith voter approval of a school millage increase has emerged. The Walton Family Foundation has awarded a grant to the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce to hire a person to help coordinate workforce training in the region.

The foundation is also awarding a similar grant to the Northwest Arkansas Council for a similar purpose. The total $1.3 million grant will be shared by the council and the chamber.

On May 22, Fort Smith voters said yes to a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, with approximately 62% of voters — around 78% of whom were Republicans, according to the county’s voter turnout numbers — approving the 5.558 millage gain. The new millage rate will rise to 42.058 from 36.5 that was set in 1987. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements.

Fort Smith school officials recently announced that Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck will soon be in charge of security for the around 15,000 Fort Smith Public School students in 19 elementary schools, four junior highs, two senior highs, one alternative learning center and one adult education center. Hollenbeck, who will be the first director of security and facilities for the school district, will begin the job on Nov. 19. He will be paid around $104,000 a year. His sheriff salary was between $90,000 and $95,000.

While safety improvements at the schools are the top priority of the millage program, the money will also fund a Career and Technology Center. Jason Green, vice-president of human resources at ABB/Baldor and one of the business leaders behind the millage push, has said improving workforce skills and encouraging more students to engage in the trades is vital for the region’s economy.

“The first group of kids to benefit from that (center) will still be a few years away, but I think you’ll at least see a change in perception and priority pretty soon,” Green said.

Tim Allen, the Fort Smith chamber president and CEO, said the chamber has worked with public school officials, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and business leaders “to build a regional infrastructure to develop the talent for a variety of career pathways, including advanced manufacturing, healthcare and information technology jobs.”

“Simply put, this is huge,” Allen said in a statement. “For the Walton Family Foundation to recognize both areas and the work we’re doing to develop the workforce of the 21st century is very exciting. As the face of business and industry continues to evolve, Fort Smith business leaders are leading the way to build the workforce we need.”

Allen said the foundation became interested in helping after the millage was approved.

Allen told Talk Business & Politics the chamber will conduct a nationwide search “for that right person … who has that blend of education, and business experience, and can build those (coalitions) to get this done.” Specifically, Allen said the coordinator will be a chamber employee and will work to better connect regional workforce programs in place, expand them where possible, and encourage adoption of training programs successful in other metro areas. Advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology were mentioned by the Walton Family Foundation as key areas to develop in the Fort Smith metro. Allen hopes to have the job filled in early 2019.

Trent Goins, president and CEO of O.K. Foods and chairman of the Fort Smith chamber board, said doing more to provide a “highly skilled workforce” is the only way to stay competitive in a constantly changing global economy. Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, praised the grant and the collaboration between the two regions.

“I applaud Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Council for coming together to work toward a viable solution. This grant from the Walton Family Foundation will go a long way to fund initiatives that will help ensure that Fort Smith remains competitive for future new and expanding projects,” Preston said in a statement.

In Northwest Arkansas, Joe Rollins has been hired by the Education Services Coop in Northwest Arkansas, and his salary will be reimbursed by the council. Rollins is now employed by the Springdale Public School District, and is credited with being a leader in opening the Springdale School of Innovation. Rollins was named the district’s support services director earlier this year, and started his work in the Springdale school district in 2004.

“The most successful regions in the nation are forging connections between employers and education / training institutions,” said Mike Harvey, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s chief operating officer. “The primary responsibility for the two new hires will be to strengthen the linkages that already exist and to greatly expand the number of new ones.”