Arkansas businesses across the industry spectrum have long-faced a well-known workforce problem: an increasing percentage of their highly technical-skilled employees are at or nearing retirement age and an adequate pipeline does not exist to supply needed replacements.
High school graduates are not pursuing the necessary post-secondary training to support the increasing workforce shortage and, finally, in too many cases, technical programs across the state are not equipped with current generation tools or resources to properly prepare students for today’s technical careers.
In 2013, the Arkansas State Chamber began to hear this concern from a rapidly-growing number of its members and began to put together a legislative package intended to improve the post-secondary delivery of technical education across the state.
Legislation was presented in 2015 and while some success was achieved – the creation of the Arkansas Office of Skills Development and its Oversight Committee – much of what was presented fell on deaf ears.
The lackluster results produced an idea that would sooner than later begin to produce remarkable outcomes: Be Pro Be Proud, a movement to build the next generation of pride, progress, and professionals in the state of Arkansas.
Be Pro Be Proud and its flagship Mobile Workshop were launched in 2016 through funds donated by a group of public and private partners. A budget of $200,000 was established and the goal set to conduct a tour across Arkansas to allow students to use games and simulators to explore high-demand careers.
From March 6, 2016 – the announcement date – through March 8, 2016, over 50 tour requests were received. By March 31, there were more than enough requests to fill every available school day through December 31. Since its launch, the Be Pro Be Proud workshops have completed 744 tour stops across 445 Arkansas cities and towns and have hosted over 118,000 middle and high school students. Since the beginning, the Be Pro Tour Team has encouraged students to sign up to learn more about training and career opportunities in promoted fields. To date, more than 23,500 students have joined the movement. The popularity of the Be Pro Mobile Workshop in schools and in workforce development circles has survived COVID-19 and at present, the waiting list includes over 180 middle and high schools, two-year colleges and companies that are in the queue and more are added daily.
Be Pro Be Proud has long benefited from strong support from Gov. Asa Hutchinson and his workforce cabinet. That support, combined with broad and significant business investment and a five-year record of positively impacting participating students prompted the governor to announce a $1.45 million grant announcement on Monday, January 24th. Gov. Hutchinson said, “With the extensive waiting list and growing popularity, we knew that we needed a duplicate (Mobile Workshop).” He went on to elaborate on the impact Be Pro Be Proud has on students.
“Young people see the opportunities, what they can make, and the challenges of these careers and it makes a difference with them (young people),” he said.
Be Pro Be Proud anticipates the launch of its second 53-foot Be Pro Mobile Workshop in September 2022. With the ability to double the reach of the program, it is expected that Be Pro Be Proud will be able to complete 90-120 tour stops each semester and reach roughly 50,000 Arkansas students annually. At the January announcement, U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, said, ”We are in the business of changing outcomes. We want our kids to learn how they can make a living, pursue happiness on their own, and create their own companies and independent lifestyles. Be Pro Be Proud is absolutely an illustration of that and my hat is off to them.”
Due to the success of the Be Pro Be Proud initiative in Arkansas, the organization has since expanded beyond Arkansas’ borders and in September 2020, Be Pro Be Proud South Carolina and Be Pro Be Proud Georgia were launched. Success continues.
Editor’s note: Randy Zook is the president/CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.