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Expect More, Demand Change

“What do I need to get a good job in Arkansas?”

This is the question high schooler George was wrestling with. Some people told him he had to have at least a bachelor’s degree to have a shot at a good career. Others told him, “College isn’t for everyone,” and “You might just end up with a mountain of student debt with no guarantees.” He heard on the news there were thousands of high-paying jobs waiting for skilled Arkansans.

What can we tell George?

We know businesses want skilled workers and can pay them well. In Arkansas, if you have at least an associate degree, there’s an 84 percent chance you earn enough to support a family. We also know too few Arkansans reach that education milestone, and there aren’t enough certified and apprenticed Arkansans to fill current employer needs. We know Arkansas has low unemployment. We know 70 percent of jobs here require no more than a high school diploma and most do not pay a family-supporting wage. We have to change this. If we don’t, Arkansas will continue to be a working poor state because of the lack of skilled workers for existing jobs and the lack of high-skill jobs coming to our state.

It’s time we help Arkansans like George. It’s time for employers to help Arkansans make the right choices for their education and help schools equip students with the right skills. Jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and construction today aren’t the same jobs they were decades ago. They demand more education and training after high school. We have to help Arkansans meet that demand. The good news is Arkansas’ businesses are starting to come together to create change.

George was feeling like college was not an option and his job prospects were limited until he stepped into a trailer with the words Be Pro, Be Proud on the side. He spotted a welding simulator and decided to give it a try. He was astonished to discover he had a natural talent for a job he’d never considered. The Be Pro, Be Proud tour manager helped him find a local college where he could gain the skills he needed to turn his talent into a high-paying career.

Students like George are the reason the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce started Be Pro, Be Proud. Ask Andrew Parker, who leads the program. He’s a man on a mission to “change perceptions that students, parents and teachers have about skilled professions in Arkansas.” Parker knows we need more Arkansans with four-year degrees, but he also knows employers are desperate to find skilled workers with relevant certificates and two-year degrees.

Most Arkansas students know that it takes years of college to become a doctor or lawyer and the financial reward those careers provide. Too few students know about the training path it takes to become a computer numerically controlled (CNC) operator, a tool and die maker or a plumber. They don’t know these careers demand high skills and provide family-supporting wages. Be Pro, Be Proud identifies in-demand, high-skill jobs, provides interactive experiences for students like George and connects them to training at community colleges. Be Pro, Be Proud also helps employers coordinate with colleges to co-create the training and certifications they need employees to have.

This is just one example of how businesses are stepping up in Arkansas to drive the conversation and demand change. More business leaders must act to create the skilled workforce we need in our state. They can partner with community colleges to ensure they’re offering relevant degrees and certificates and are graduating a qualified future workforce.

The data is clear. According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s (WRF) Expect More Arkansas: Our Jobs, Our Future, there are 1.6 million jobs in Arkansas now, and a half million more openings in the next 10 years. If nothing changes, a decade from now our jobs will still mostly be low skill, and most will not provide a family-supporting wage.

WRF launched the Expect More Arkansas initiative to help more Arkansans like George find the right career path and become part of the workforce employers need. In partnership with business leaders, educators and policymakers, we are increasing the number of Arkansans with degrees and certificates to build a more high-skilled workforce that earns family-supporting wages. And if more of us demand change, we can expect more of Arkansas’s future.

Learn more and join the Expect More movement at expectmorenow.org.