How Arkansas’ construction industry succeeds in 2023

by Dr. Hank Bray ([email protected]) 2,845 views 

Between inflation, supply chain issues, a looming recession and more, 2023 promises to be a year of challenges for the construction industry in Arkansas. Those of us in Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering at UA Little Rock have a front row seat to one of the industry’s biggest challenges in the coming year: the worker shortage.

I would argue that partnerships between the industry and higher education are the only way toward success in the future.

Higher education needs to embrace the entire range of workforce development. has 635 jobs posted in construction project management in Arkansas. Most of these require a college degree in Construction Management or a related field. Our programs turn out dozens of graduates every year, with a 100% hiring rate, but educators can’t solve this problem alone. We must team up to help people get the training each individual needs to grow and prosper.

Construction needs to engage young people by offering a path to the American Dream.
The construction industry in Arkansas can provide jobs with health insurance, retirement plans, and the ability to make enough money to support a family.

Right now, young people aren’t getting the message. Instead, they have many misconceptions.

A 2022 study by Stanley Black & Decker found that 1 in 5 high schoolers believed the annual starting salary for most skilled jobs was less than $20,000. Arkansas’ industry leaders, such as Bernhard, Clark Contractors, Darragh, Environmental Protection Associates, James A. Rogers, Kinco Constructors, Nabholz Construction, Staley Electric and others are making the investment in our construction labs on campus and provide real-world opportunities and connections. What’s more, they’re benefiting by hiring our highly-skilled graduates.

Construction needs more leaders willing to create opportunity.
Part of the treasured history of our department is the role Howard Williams played in its founding. Over 30 years ago, at a time when high school shop classes were on the verge of going extinct, Howard and a few others had the foresight to know Central Arkansas needed college-level programs in construction to broaden career opportunities for individuals in the field.

As administrator of the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board in the early 1990’s, Howard provided the seed money for our first classrooms and laid the groundwork for our Construction Management degree. His unwavering support for the education and advancement of young construction professionals in Arkansas has created a thriving program that’s now vital to our state economy, showing that forward-thinking.

It’s an example of the forward-thinking and generosity that has helped our industry weather its storms, and the kind of leadership we need today.

Construction needs to welcome women.
There has never been more opportunity for qualified workers in underrepresented populations to succeed in construction in Arkansas. But currently, only 12% of workers in construction are female. We need to engage female trailblazing teachers like Gozde Gursoy and Anne Turner here at UA Little Rock, who are helping us understand how to create a more welcoming environment for women out of the field. We need to look to Dr. Cathy Riggins, Howard’s daughter, who leads Vilonia Pathways Academy in partnership with UA Little Rock. She is on the front lines of engaging those young people we need to meet the hiring crisis and combat industry stereotypes.

Editor’s note: Dr. Hank Bray has served as chair of the Department of Construction Management & Civil & Construction Engineering at UA Little Rock since 2018. The opinions expressed are those of the author.