Officials say worker ‘pipeline’ key to Fort Smith metro workforce development

by Tina Alvey Dale ( 967 views 

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

Workforce development is vital to Fort Smith. It’s a point Tim Allen, Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, has stressed often over the past several years.

In order to attract more industry to the region, there has to be an increase to the pool of skilled workers in the Fort Smith MSA, Allen says. In order to increase that pool, schools and industry have to work together. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Fort Smith Public Schools have programs in place to help grow that pool and continue to move forward with plans to do more.

Fort Smith voters approved a school millage increase in 2018, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $13.724 million of which is earmarked for a Career and Technology Center featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology and advanced manufacturing, areas Allen has said are the most highly needed of skilled talent in Fort Smith. The facility should open in 2021 in the former Hutcheson shoe facility in east Fort Smith, was donated to the school district in February.

UAFS has a mission to serve the citizens of the region, both in preparing students for personal success and in developing a talented and agile workforce to meet the community’s needs, said Dr. Edward Serna, interim UAFS chancellor.

“We view workforce development as everything from certificate programs to master’s degree programs, because everything we do at UAFS is dedicated to creating life-ready and career-ready graduates,” he said.

UAFS certificate programs meet immediate needs of area employers and “engage valuable and important partnerships,” he said. Likewise, associate programs aim to prepare students for careers working with leading-edge technology, from radiography to unmanned aerial systems, he added. Bachelor’s and master’s programs also aim to meet critical employment needs in Arkansas and beyond, and students from all areas graduate ready to enter the workplace that needs their skills, Serna said.

“Workforce development is two-fold. One, current employees need to be trained with new abilities and reskilled. And two, we also realize we need access to a robust pipeline of technically skilled talent,” said Jason Green, vice-president of human resources at ABB/Baldor.

In order to grow that pipeline, ABB has implemented the ABB Youth Apprenticeship Program. The inaugural program will begin over the summer and is inspired by the company’s Swill apprenticeship program, Green said. Based in Zurich, ABB has similar programs in its European plants, Green said, but this is the first time to bring it to Fort Smith.

The company began by speaking with students in advanced manufacturing at the Western Arkansas Technical Center at UAFS and those attending UAFS advanced manufacturing programs through a regional workforce grant, Green said. High school students in the area applied for the program; candidates were interviewed; and eventually nine students — seven juniors and two seniors in high school — were chosen for the program, he said. The program will coincide with the senior year for the seven who will still be in high school. The two students who graduate this spring will continue their education at UAFS, and their program will go toward class credit there.

“These are some really sharp, intelligent young people,” Green said of the students chosen. “Ideally next year, we will be able to offer this to rising juniors and seniors. That way the juniors could have two years in the program.”

Beginning June 3, students will spend six-weeks of the summer with ABB, where they will give 40 hours a week to the company. They will spend four hours in the morning in continuing advanced manufacturing curriculum with UAFS instructors in a classroom at ABB and the afternoon work in the plant in various areas, putting to use the skills they learn in the classroom, Green said. The student will be paid for a 40-hour work week during their summer program, he added. Once school starts, the students will work three hours a day, four days a week.

“When the students complete the program, they will be ready to go into the workforce in advanced manufacturing,” Green said. “We are really optimistic about what it will become. We are excited for them to learn and be our future pipeline of talent.”

Green sees students from the program going in one of three ways: They could decide to enter the workforce in advanced manufacturing, ideally at ABB; they could decide to continue working toward some type of advanced manufacturing degree or acquire additional skills at UAFS while continuing to work for ABB; or they could decide pursue a college degree at another institution.

“Some may want to go into engineering and go to college,” Green said. “We just want to stay connected. If they go away, we hope they come back and work for us in the summer. I see so much potential with this program. They are getting real world experience and a great learning opportunity.”

It’s precisely such types of programs that will keep Fort Smith relevant in terms the manufacturing industry, Allen said. Over the last 10 years, traditionally manufacturing jobs have migrated from Fort Smith to overseas and Mexico, but 20% of Fort Smith’s GDP is dependent on manufacturing, he said.

“In order to remain relevant, we have to have a pipeline of advanced manufacturing,” he said. “Now it’s about retooling and refurbishing. As (Fort Smith) companies are retooling their facilities, the new equipment requires skillsets more compatible, a skillset we’ve never seen before. We have to rethink how and where we train in order to increase the number of skilled workers in the pool.”

Part of the work includes the hiring by the chamber of Steven Lamm as vice president of workforce development. His hiring was announced Thursday (May 9).

Wherever the apprenticeship program leads the students involved in it, Green sees it as an opportunity to grow the pipeline of talent in advanced manufacturing in Fort Smith and the region.

“It’s great for students, for our company and for our community,” Green said. “Hopefully, it will lead to more companies in Fort Smith offering an apprenticeship program. We’ll have more programs, by more advanced manufacturing companies, and more students learning those valuable skills, which leads to more skilled talent in the field.”