El Dorado: Working Hard To Train a Better Prepared Workforce (Workforce Development | Winner, 5,000-20,000)

Workforce development is a priority in El Dorado.

The town of 18,000 or so remains a regional hub in south Arkansas, and an impressive collection of civic organizations has pulled together to create a comprehensive list of programs designed to meet the needs of the area’s biggest employers.

These civic leaders recognize that workforce training is a key ingredient to economic development. They represent the following organizations who have implemented programs aimed at helping the city produce more skilled workers: El Dorado Public Schools, the El Dorado Promise, South Arkansas Community College (SouthArk), the South Arkansas Workforce Training and Education Consortium and the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.

Their efforts to enhance the skills of local workers through workforce development have earned El Dorado a 2012 Arkansas Business City of Distinction award.

Possibly the most well known of El Dorado’s workforce initiatives is the El Dorado Promise, a scholarship program launched by hometown Murphy Oil in 2007 that promised $50 million to graduates of El Dorado High School for college tuition.

Essentially, it guaranteed that all EDHS graduates would have the chance to attend college. Since its launch, almost 1,000 El Dorado students have received Promise funding based on how long each student has been enrolled in El Dorado schools. For example, students enrolled for all 13 years (kindergarten through 12th grade) receive 100 percent of the available per-student funds. Funding is based on the highest tuition at an Arkansas public university.

More than 20 percent of Promise grads start their college careers at SouthArk. This year, Promise grads attended such prestigious schools as Hendrix, Cornell, Sewanee, Emory, Penn, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt.

SouthArk is implementing a new program to help expand the workforce of the area’s largest industries — oil, gas and petrochemical — which are beginning to see a generation of operators reach retirement age and a shortage of young workers coming up to replace them.

These jobs average a starting pay of about $17 an hour and require not only extensive knowledge of computers, math, physics and chemistry but also solid communication skills.

The new Process Technology Program (PTEC) offers two-year associate and one-year technical degrees. SouthArk believes it can improve the skill set of the local workforce, thus helping retain some of the area’s highest-paying jobs.

Local employers have pitched in through an advisory committee that helps develop curriculum, identify equipment and provide personnel and financial resources.

PTEC utilizes a large-scale, realistic, industrial process simulator, the Polaris Hands On Training unit, to provide training.

In addition, the South Arkansas Workforce Training and Education Consortium plans training curriculum, sets training schedules, determines education and training providers, and determines fees. Its members include Lion Oil, El Dorado Chemical, Entegra, DuPont, Clean Harbors, Del-Tin Fibers, Chemtura and Amercable.

The Contractor Safety Training Orientation Program (C-STOP) is a collaborative effort of local businesses to provide uniform and consistent training of contract workers on the orientation level at petrochemical and energy plants.

Last year, the Chamber created an internship program along with many local employers and expanded existing programs at other businesses. The program, funded initially by the Murphy Foundation, provides students with professional experience and provides participating companies with an additional recruiting tool.

“The end result ultimately is to expand the qualified workforce in south Arkansas, which in turn will strengthen our existing employer base and help lure more companies to the area,” said Kimberly Eller, director of communications for the Chamber. “In addition, this initiative will help us keep more of our grads home after college.”

The city is also marketing its commitment to workforce development. Print ads, direct mail pieces and billboards promote the use of interns and the city’s GoElDorado.com website, launched in December of 2011. Since going live, the site has attracted more than 221,000 page views, with more than 62,000 of them to the site’s virtual job fair.

Eller said El Dorado will continue to develop innovative ways to strengthen its workforce.

“Our ultimate goals are to provide a skilled workforce for employers in Union County and communicate employment opportunities to both residents of the area and those interested in relocating here,” she said.