The growing popularity of “signing days” that connect high school and higher ed students with business and industry has made its way to Fort Smith with an event set for May 3 as part of the 2019 Business & Career Expo held by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The expo is set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fort Smith Convention Center. The day begins at 7:30 a.m. with Jeremy Bout as the keynote speaker of the First Friday Breakfast, and the signing event will begin when his address concludes. Bout, 42, founded Niagara Falls, N.Y.-based Edge Factor in 2010 and the company now has around 20 employees. He will present his Edge Factor concept to the community during his remarks.
“The Signing Day event will be the culmination of months of applications, interviews and decisions made by area employers and students who are being matched for both full employment and apprenticeships,” the chamber noted in its announcement.
While signing days have been common for decades with high school athletes selecting colleges, only in recent years have trade groups, business officials and higher education officials used signing day events to raise awareness about trade skill jobs. For example, the National Coalition of Certification Centers held a signing day event Feb. 21 among 30 community colleges from the Eastern Maine Community College to Pierce College in Los Angeles. The coalition began the signing day event in 2018 with 21 community and technical colleges.
The chamber notice said participating companies at the signing day event include ABB-Fort Smith, Action Mechanical, ArcBest, Baptist-Fort Smith, Landmark PLC, Mercy-Fort Smith, Rheem, and SSI Design-Build Constructors. The number of participating students is as of yet unknown, but they are being selected from the Fort Smith Public School District and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
“Signing day for these students is going to be very similar to signing day for athletes, but Fort Smith has never seen anything like this before,” Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Chamber, said in a statement. “The talent that is represented by these students is phenomenal and exactly what Fort Smith needs. This is a direct impact of the work our community is doing to reinvigorate our workforce for advanced manufacturing, healthcare and IT jobs. These students are getting access to top-flight career opportunities in their own backyard.”
Allen told Talk Business & Politics the signing day is either the first or one of the first in Arkansas.
An IBISWorld report in June 2018 listed five sectors – construction, retail trade, accommodation and food services, manufacturing, healthcare and social assistance – where skilled jobs are in the most demand nationwide. The healthcare sector is one of the fastest growing in the Fort Smith metro. The sector – Education and Health Services – had an estimated 17,100 jobs in the Fort Smith metro during February, up compared to the 16,900 in February 2018. The sector reached an employment record of 17,200 in June 2018. Nationwide, sector employers complain of a shrinking pool of workers for the fast-growing field.
“The nation’s nursing shortage can be attributed to both an increasing number of experienced nurses entering retirement age and the number of new nursing graduates falling short of what is necessary to replenish the workforce,” noted the IBISWorld report. “In an effort to avoid risking patient safety or closing down departments, hospitals have begun offering lucrative incentives such as large bonuses and free housing and tuition to aid in recruiting and retaining nurses, which cuts into profit margins.”
Some research suggests the lack of workers for skilled jobs is more a function of poor coordination rather than people available for the work. Andrew Weaver, an assistant professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, argued in an August 2017 MIT Technology Review article for more “coordination and communication between workers and employers.”
“Instead of fretting about a skills gap, we should be focused on the real challenge of knitting together the supply and demand sides of the labor market. Thinking about the real financial and institutional mechanisms necessary to make, say, apprenticeships work is far more productive than perennially sounding alarms about under-skilled workers,” Weaver wrote.