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Arkansas Is Open for Business, But Are We Ready?

Fifty years ago, Winthrop Rockefeller found himself behind a new desk with new responsibilities as governor of Arkansas. He was full of hope, optimism and passion. In office, he met hundreds of Arkansans who expected more from their state’s future. To make this vision of prosperity a reality, he pushed for numerous economic and education reforms, and he sent a clear message to his constituents and the nation that Arkansas was ready for an “Era of Excellence.”

Ten years ago, I also found myself behind a new desk with new responsibilities when I became the president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF). Like the Governor, I saw how much Arkansas had going for it. I shared my new home with one of the largest commercial success stories in the world, Walmart. Arkansans produced more chicken, rice and tilapia than almost anywhere, and the state was abundant with resources, entrepreneurship and ingenuity. I saw that Arkansas was open for business, but I wondered if it was ready for excellence.

When I first read WRF’s report Expect More Arkansas: Our Jobs, Our Future, I saw a state poised to gain nearly 150,000 jobs in a decade. I also saw that what was true a decade ago holds true today and will continue to be true unless businesses take action now: employers struggle to find high-skilled workers. Reviewing the data, I thought back to Gov. Rockefeller’s inauguration speech, in which he said, “We shall no longer be content merely to exalt in our potential or measure our progress in comparison with our past.”

It’s time for Arkansas to stop looking in the rearview mirror and take hold of the opportunity presented to it. It’s time for employers to support students in choosing the right education, help educators prepare future workers and entrepreneurs and create new ways of building a more qualified workforce. Fortunately Arkansas has several "Expect More Bright Spots" to show the state what it can do. 

We need more individuals with two-year degrees and technical certificates, but many students don’t know what they can accomplish with these credentials. That is why the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce has started Be Pro, Be Proud to show students what career options and income opportunities are available after becoming certified welders, electricians and other technical professionals. Employers can reach out to students and their parents to let them know what they can do to qualify for positions that have gone unfilled for years.

High school and post secondary educators need to know how they can better prepare our state’s future workforce. To help Independence County thrive, businesses have partnered with the Southside School District, the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville and Lyon College to start Project Future Story. Now, Southside High School students are graduating and starting high-potential careers in their community. Business owners can form partnerships with local education institutions to make sure students enter the workforce equipped with the skills employers need them to have.

There’s no lack of creativity and ingenuity in our state’s business community, which means there’s nothing to stop us from coming up with bold new strategies to fill vacant positions. In Little Rock, Dassault Falcon Jet started Almost Qualified in partnership with University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College and Goodwill Industries of Arkansas to train Pulaski Tech students to start jobs at Dassault or find opportunities elsewhere. Employers can create apprenticeship programs and form new training partnerships to help them get the talent they need.

WRF has built on Gov. Rockefeller’s legacy during my 10 years here. Through initiatives like the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and ForwARd Arkansas, we’re improving outcomes for our students and future workforce. But I’m not happy with just being in a better place than where we were. We are ready for another “Era of Excellence.” Getting there will take businesses that invest in current and future employees, a quality education system that prepares students for careers, communities that set higher expectations and leaders that are no longer content with Arkansas’s low-skill, low-wage economy.

If we invest together in helping our students and workforce gain the skills employers need, our state will have no trouble training, attracting and retaining high-skilled talent. Arkansas families will earn more, buy more from local businesses, own more homes and rely less on social services like Medicaid and other government assistance. When businesses, communities, governments, schools and parents co-invest in the right education and training, we will prepare our state for a new “Era of Excellence.”

To learn more, visit expectmorenow.org

Sherece Y. West-Scantlebury is president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.