Workforce development focus of Fort Smith chamber annual meeting

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 494 views 

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin recently attended a dinner with the education minister of Singapore during which the minister said that without industry and the private sector leading workforce development, it will not work.

Singapore, along with being the world leader in mathematics, has done “some very interesting” work in workforce development and workforce training, Griffin said.

“(The education minister was saying) there is a role for education institutions to play and for state government to play in concert with the private sector, emphasizing that only the private sector knows exactly what they need,” Griffin said during his remarks at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce annual meeting and luncheon Wednesday (Oct. 23).

Everything the minister discussed is exactly what communities like Fort Smith are doing in Arkansas, he said.

“We as a state government recognized long ago that government institutions in of itself could not produce exactly the skill sets that the private sector needs. It is that marriage between state government and the institutions, the two-year schools, etc., with the private sector that makes thing so successful here (in Fort Smith) in particular with apprenticeships,” Griffin said, lauding Fort Smith’s focus on workforce development.

The apprenticeship and internship programs Griffin mentioned are just part of how Fort Smith is progressing towards priorities set out in a 2018 study by an outside consultant on the Fort Smith workforce that highlighted the need for workforce development in the area. Five priorities deemed important for Fort Smith to invest in were set in that study, said Tim Allen, Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. Steps were made in the past year toward all those priorities, he added.

The first step was to improve the training facilities for high school career technical education (CTE) students and post-secondary job opportunities. This goal is being met through the Fort Smith Public School’s Career Technology Center and commitments from the Western Arkansas Technical Center at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Allen said.

It was announced in September that FSPS will receive a $1.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help build its Career Technology Center. FSPS earmarked $13.724 million of funds to be raised from the school millage increase Fort Smith voters approved in 2018 for a Career and Technology Center. The facility, which should open in 2021, will feature specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines, all housed in the former Hutcheson shoe facility, a 181,710-square-foot building that sits on almost 17 acres at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane in east Fort Smith. The building was donated to FSPS for use as the center in February by the estate of William Hutcheson Jr., saving the district at least $3 million that had been budgeted to buy an existing building.

This career center also will go toward meeting the second priority to provide more capacity for better training prioritizing specialized middle-skilled professionals targeting medical, information technology and manufacturing, Allen said. Phase one of the facility remodel will include 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of dedicated teaching space for advanced technology education, 7,000 square feet for healthcare education and 5,000 square feet for information technology education, Allen said.

Obligating resources in a succinct effort to provide better quality information to a broad public, students, parents, educators, so they will be aware of the jobs that are available in the area is the third priority set forth in the study. The Chamber is meeting this goal through a new position.

Steven Lamm, former project manager with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and former aide to Gov. Mike Beebe, was hired in May by the chamber as vice president of workforce development. The position, funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation announced in October 2018, is designed to “strengthen ties between educational institutions and the business community.” The grant is split equally between the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Fort Smith chamber and is part of an effort to build a regional infrastructure to develop talent for a variety of career pathways, including advanced manufacturing, healthcare and information technology jobs.

The fourth goal deals with education initiatives that will ensure students graduating from high school and the university have a certificate or a degree that can be used in the marketplace immediately.

“The chamber, businesses, the university and educators in K through 12 are all working together to ensure the curriculum at both institutions (UAFS and FSPS) are in line with each other. And that is a big part of our task. Very difficult to do, but we are making great progress,” Allen said. “Local businesses are engaged more than ever with both higher ed and public schools to ensure students have skill sets that are needed in the market place.”

Finally, the report prioritized the formation of a consortium to develop and sustain a regional effort focused on targeted talent attraction place making and promotion. In May, the chamber contracted with Edge Factor to better bring students and businesses together to showcase what jobs and careers are available.

Jeremy Bout, founder of Edge Factor, said 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.

At the time, the chamber said 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.”

Since May, Edge Factor has partnered with many business in Fort Smith, Bout told those attending Wednesday’s meeting, and talked with students on how to get the most out of the platform. Edge Factor produced a video highlighting Fort Smith and careers available in healthcare, IT and advanced manufacturing in the area.

“It is really important to highlight the opportunities here in Fort Smith. You guys know that. You are probably here because of that. You recognize that workforce development and the future employees coming into your location is a really core piece of your future growth strategy,” Bout said, noting that the measure of success of Edge Factor is going to be local awareness, local usage and local performance.