Months of applications, interviews and reviews culminated Friday (May 3) in 31 students publicly committing to jobs, internships and mentoring programs during a signing day event following the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce’s First Friday Breakfast.
The event, one of the first of its kind in Arkansas, saw students from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) and regional high schools commit to Fort Smith business, including ABB-Fort Smith, ArcBest, Baptist-Fort Smith, Mercy-Fort Smith, SSI Design-Build Constructors and more.
Morgan Harvey, who is graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the UAFS, signed as a registered nurse in oncology with Mercy-Fort Smith at the morning event. She and several of her classmates even missed a few hours of clinicals to attend, she said.
“It is really cool. It definitely makes you feel good to be recognized like this,” she said.
The three sectors in the most need of a skilled worker pool in Fort Smith are information technologies, healthcare and advanced manufacturing, said Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Chamber. Developing the workforce has been an ongoing focus in the Fort Smith area for a few years, but Allen said he was tired of talking about it, he was ready to do something about.
Thus Friday’s signing day.
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 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 said in a statement about the event.
Though the event was inspirational for the students, the opportunities they signed for offer life-changing outcomes.
“It’s a great opportunity. I mean it’s going to give me skills to develop personally as well as professionally. And it’s a great opportunity to get my foot in the door,” said Brenda Sanabria, who signed an internship in customer support with ArcBest.
Students also signed for mentoring programs. Eric Graham, an 11th-grader at Greenwood High School, was one of nine who signed for the inaugural ABB Youth Apprenticeship Program. The program accepted students from the advanced manufacturing program at Western Arkansas Technical Center at UAFS or workforce training through UAFS.
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, said Jason Green, vice-president of human resources at ABB/Baldor. Once school starts, the students will work three hours a day, four days a week.
“This is really exciting,” Graham said. “It’s a great opportunity for my future.”
Another aspect of a little less talk and a lot more action in terms of Fort Smith’s workforce was showcased during the First Friday Breakfast’s keynote address by Jeremy Bout, founder of Edge Factor. The Fort Smith Chamber contracted with Edge Factor to better bring students and businesses together to showcase what jobs and careers are available.
According to the chamber, Edge Factor “empowers communities across North America with story-driven tools to tackle workforce development, inspire students, reach parents, and build relationships between local schools and companies.”
Bout told Talk Business & Politics the key to the program is using videos, short films and other visual platforms to create relationships between education, business and students and their parents. Specifically, the online, searchable platform helps students “gain knowledge about the different types of career pathways.” The program also helps identify where apprenticeships are available, info about associates degrees, and the type of education needed for identified jobs.
Edge Factor brings information directly to students hand-held digital devices or into the homes, not when they are preparing to graduate from college or high school, but in sixth or seventh grade or even before when they are first starting to dream of what they will be in the future, Allen said.
“With this parents can see what is out there as far as careers. Kids can see what is out there. And employers can see who is out there,” he said.
One side of the Edge Factor website has human resource executives talking about their companies, what it is they do, what career opportunities they have, and what they want to see from prospective employees. The other side showcases the students, Allen said. It allows them to have a digital resume of sorts that says who they are, what their career goal is and what skill set they have.
“Our goal is here is to connect students into a career path,” Allen said. “To reach them where and when they are.”
Bout said he hopes many Fort Smith companies get involved with the program.
“We’re doing this. We are not just going to stand here and talk about this,” Bout said. “My team is really excited to roll up our sleeves and get to work here and really start to change how we do career exploration here for students. We really hope you are passionate about your story and know how to tell your story.”