by Chris Bahn
Posted 4/15/2013 12:00 am
Updated 8 months ago
Northwest Arkansas companies are again optimistic about future growth.
A recent business retention and expansion survey conducted by the Northwest Arkansas Council and local chambers of commerce reveal that 30 percent of the more than 450 employers surveyed — a sample that ranged from mom-and-pop operations to global retailers — plan expansions within the next three years.
That optimism is not, however, unchecked.
A common theme among businesses that identified areas of concern was a potential lack of available skilled labor. Worker supply ranked second on the list of perceived impediments to future expansion.
Northwest Arkansas employers aren’t alone in their concerns. Companies in the United States and globally report a shortage of workers available for skilled-labor jobs. A recent Businessweek.com report cited a worldwide survey of 39,000 companies, one third of which revealed they aren’t able to find workers with the skills needed to fill jobs.
“We’ve had companies tell us point-blank they’d hire 12 workers but they can only find five,” said Mike Harvey, COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “This is something we need to pay attention to. It’s not just something in northwest Arkansas. They’re seeing it across the industries. This is nationwide. It’s interesting.”
Tim Cornelius, vice president for learning at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, hears frequently from employers about concerns that their growth will be hindered by the lack of an available workforce. He heads a manufacturers’ roundtable for regional employers and said anecdotes about jobs that can’t be filled have become more frequent.
Employees with skills to help local manufacturers are in demand, but in short supply right now. That’s good for them, but can become costly as employers fight over a small pool of qualified workers.
“They’re sort of cannibalizing each other right now,” Cornelius said. “We need more skilled workers in the pipeline to fill the jobs. There’s a lot of fluidity of movement for workers right now.”
ORC Products is one of the companies sitting in on the NWACC roundtable. The computer numerical control machining facility in Springdale provides products to the aerospace and hydraulic industries, and its business grew by 50 percent in the first year under new owner Tom Benincosa, who bought the company in 2011.
Growth has been less drastic in year two, but steady enough that the company recently closed on a new workspace for its 16 employees. That could grow to 20, including additional machinists, by the end of the year. Provided, of course, that qualified help can be found.
Operating the computer numerical control machines at ORC is part geometry, part computer science and part robotics. Production Manager Casey Benincosa, Tom’s son, said finding the right hires isn’t easy.
“Our customers want us to grow with them,” Casey Benincosa said. “At some point you wonder about having the personnel to continue that growth. There is a shortage of people right now that can from start to finish make a part on a CNC machine. What you run into is people with experience machining or people who know programming. We need people that can do both. It’s an undertaking.”
That need is good news for Keith Peterson, VP of instruction at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.
Currently, the vocational school has an 80 percent placement rate for students, who are filling skilled labor positions in the region as soon as they graduate from the programs offered. Those areas of study are completed in 11 or 18 months.
Peterson said the school is currently at capacity and, given the resources, could double its enrollment within five years.
“Our industry advisers tell us they’ll have an opening for an administrative assistant and they’ll get 100 people with bachelor’s degrees applying,” Peterson said. “An industrial maintenance tech? They’re having to call around and really work to fill those type jobs.”
Filling the gap between available jobs and available employees will come down to education, Peterson said. It goes beyond training workers to fill those jobs, but opening minds to what “skilled labor” is in the 21st century.
Peterson, Benincosa and Cornelius all said high school students too often see a four-year degree as the only way to make a living. It can be a costly option, one that students are left paying for decades later.
“I’m not sure high schools are getting the message to students,” Cornelius said.
Peterson echoed that thought. Manufacturing jobs in the region pay on average $35,152 a year, according to the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services. Training for those jobs at a place like NTI ($3,350) is much more affordable than attending the nearby University of Arkansas ($8,100).
“An industrial maintenance technician can make almost $20,000 more a year than I made in my first teaching job,” Peterson said. “Students aren’t told that very early in their education. They’re not told that blue-collar jobs can be fruitful for them.
“We keep hearing that we’re in need of a trained work force. Well, as a state, let’s make an investment in that.”