A look back and into the future

by Mike Preston ([email protected]) 472 views 

In 2018, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) completed 216 business recruitment, retention and expansion projects. That translates to more than 4,300 new jobs, with a capital investment of $1.6 billion. It’s the result of tremendous support from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and tireless dedication of the AEDC staff. We’re proud of those numbers and thrilled to work with companies in a wide range of industries.

While each manufacturer, corporate headquarters and service provider is different, they all have the same needs at their core – a community to call home that has a prepared workforce, appropriate infrastructure, and support from local and state officials to grow.

Because of that, AEDC launched three programs this year that seek to improve what the state offers to businesses that are looking to relocate or expand.

Competitive Communities Initiative
Through the Competitive Communities Initiative that launched in March, Arkansas will be better prepared for more investments, jobs and economic growth in communities of all sizes and in all areas of the state. It focuses on four specific pillars of community development:

• Economic development organization
• Economic development funding
• Workforce narrative
• Product readiness

A team of evaluators from AEDC and other organizations review information submitted by the communities, provide constructive feedback and assist in developing an action plan to address shortfalls.

Paragould, Newport and Russellville have completed the evaluation process and are designated as Competitive Communities, and we expect a half dozen more to complete the program requirements by June 2019.

The Competitive Communities Initiative webpages arkansassiteselection.com/aedc/ and  www.arkansasedc.com/CCI have community-specific information about available sites, infrastructure and utilities, along with videos and contact information for those community developers and for videos of sites.

Future Fit manufacturing training program
Arkansas boasts 2,928 manufacturers that make products ranging from paper products to textiles, machinery to packaged food items, making advanced manufacturing fundamental to the state’s economic diversity and success.

After conducting more than 1,800 face-to-face discovery visits with Arkansas manufacturers, AEDC found approximately 10,000 unfilled jobs and the need for more capable and skilled workers in the pipeline. Of those unfilled jobs, 26.2 percent require no formal education and 52.5 percent require a high school diploma or GED, plus some post-secondary training.

AEDC collaborated with 10 companies in western Arkansas to identify job roles and the required skill sets to fill their entry-level employee rosters. Next, AEDC partnered with Tooling U, the training arm of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, to create “Future Fit,” a 120-hour training program that could remedy or at least give relief to companies struggling to find sufficient talent.

To best suit their training needs, each company provided a subject matter expert to create job profiles for 1. Production Operator/Assembly, 2. Mechanical Repair Technician, and 3. Mechatronics Technician roles. These job standards were utilized to create an initial screening assessment for program applicants, a curriculum to educate and train candidates for employment at these companies, and a final assessment as part of Future Fit training.

Future Fit is designed for high school graduates who don’t plan to enroll in a college or university, for military veterans, for unemployed or underemployed individuals, and for non-violent offenders released by law enforcement. While Future Fit is piloted in western Arkansas, AEDC will scale up the program to the entire state with industry-specific training for each region.

Military Affairs Grant program
Arkansas has a proud history of military service, infrastructure and resources. Our service men and women and military installations not only play a vital role in our national defense, but they make an enormous, positive impact on the state’s economy. A recent economic impact study of the state’s five military installations revealed that military business interests account for $4.5 billion annually and employ 67,000 people.

In May, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a $377,812 Military Affairs Grant Program award to the Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB) Community Council and Jacksonville High School for a cyber-training curriculum.

The new cyber curriculum at Jacksonville High School will, over a four-year course of study, partner Airmen Cyber Warriors and educators from Arkansas State University-Beebe with Jacksonville High students as they earn their certifications. The program will also identify internship opportunities for students to practice skills on real world networks. The cyber curriculum program supports the governor’s vision to make Arkansas a national leader in cyber capabilities, as well as support and expand the state’s military interests and related economic development.

A $135,000 grant was awarded in June to Camp Alliance to build a day camp network, Kids in Drill, for children of guardsmen and reservists during monthly drills. Camp Alliance is a nonprofit organization established in 2010 to serve U.S. Guard and Reserve forces and complement the U.S. Department of Defense’s Military Unit and family readiness programs.

Approximately 92 percent of Arkansas military families participating in a 2016 survey identified the need for trusted, sustainable, support options during military “drill” training for their children to attend. Kids in Drill will begin at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock with plans to expand programming to Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith. Currently, there are 58 drill locations throughout the state.

Since March, the Military Affairs Grant program has distributed $583,588.75 in funds and will continue to find innovative ways to support military families in Arkansas in the new year.

With all that was accomplished last year, we could be satisfied with the status quo. But at AEDC, we’re always looking to diversity to grow the state’s economy while investing in Arkansans. Thanks to support from the governor, local officials and the legislature, 2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for economic development in all areas of the state.

Editor’s note: Mike Preston is the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The opinions expressed are those of the author. This commentary first appeared in Talk Business & Politics State of the State 2019 magazine, which you can access here.