Industry-led workforce development paving the way for state growth

by Chris Caldwell ([email protected]) 332 views 

One of the major reasons America is the world’s economic superpower is our ability to move goods and services cheaper and faster than any other nation in the world.

Arkansas, which sits geographically and logistically in the epicenter of this great strength, is poised to grow. With the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System running from Arkansas’ western border and into the Mississippi River, Arkansas ports open each day to ship and receive cargo of rice, soybeans, electrical machinery, steel, and other agricultural products, manufacturing goods, and raw materials.

Arkansas is also at the crossroads of America’s interstate system, with Interstate 40 and Interstate 30 bridging the Heartland and heavily populated East Coast corridor with Texas and roads leading farther west. The access to freight rail lines at points of entry throughout Arkansas complete the transportation logistics trifecta, allowing commerce to move to and from the state with ease.

Investing in our infrastructure not only helps attract new industries and manufacturers to the state, but also enhances existing supply lines for commodity producers and retailers like Wal-Mart, Dillard’s, Tyson Foods, and Riceland that have proudly called Arkansas home for years. This summer’s groundbreaking at the Port of Little Rock will bring CZ-USA, HMS Manufacturing Co., and Amazon to the state, adding an estimated 1,500 jobs to the Arkansas workforce. In Mississippi County, three steel mills make it one of the largest steel-producing counties in the United States.

While Arkansas is poised for job growth, all of these companies would suffer if not for the most important infrastructure investment: our human capital. Investing in the human capital necessary to strengthen Arkansas’ workforce means equipping the next generation of skilled workers with industry-led workforce development.

In November, the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) announced a $1.6 million investment in 13 workforce initiatives across the Delta region, including two initiatives in Arkansas. The first, Restore Hope Inc., is a recovery-to-work program in White County that will train individuals affected by substance abuse for high-demand careers in the metal fabrication industry. The second is Southeast Arkansas College’s certificate program in Supply Chain Transportation Technology to fill the demand for commercial truck drivers.

Additional Arkansas colleges have received similar funding, such as Arkansas Northeastern College, Black River Technical College, Ozarka College, and Southern Arkansas University Tech. These programs are committed to building a skilled workforce in Arkansas by collaborating with industry partners to develop industry-driven innovative strategies. Emphasizing “industry-driven” in workforce development is important – it means creating curriculua specific to the needs of individual companies while providing certification and quicker entry into high-demand careers than more traditional educational tracks offer.

Perhaps most importantly is the outcome these initiatives provide to individuals. Many industry partners offer apprenticeships by which students can earn while they learn. By completing an industry-led workforce development program, individuals learn a skilled trade in a high-demand field and leave school with a career they can build upon, often times ending generational poverty. While touring Arkansas Northeastern College (ANC) this summer, I met a man who months prior had been homeless. He entered the ANC program while living at a homeless shelter and left the program weeks later as a certified welder with a job, a home, and the ability and motivation to continue his education at night to earn his associate degree.

From its fertile lands to its geographic goldmine of waterways and interstates, Arkansas has all the resources and infrastructure necessary for companies to succeed at every part of the supply chain. By investing in industry-led workforce development, Arkansas’ human capital is primed to be its greatest resource to attract new business, grow existing business, and change the economic trajectory of Arkansans for generations.

Editor’s note: Chris Caldwell is the Federal Co-Chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. The opinions expressed are those of the author.