Government, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods Remain Atop Largest Arkansas Employers List

(A correction has been made to this article. See end for details.)

The names of Arkansas’ largest employers remain mostly unchanged from a year ago — and every year.

State government is still atop the list with nearly 57,000 employees. That number is 477 fewer than a year ago, a decrease of less than 1 percent, but state government still employs about 8,000 more people in Arkansas than No. 2 Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville.

Arkansas’ unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.1 percent in February, according to the state’s Department of Workforce Services. The report said that in the past year, the state had gained 9,600 nonfarm payroll jobs, with increases in six of 10 major sectors.

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Kathy Deck, the director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, said the modest job growth is a reflection of companies getting a bit more comfortable with the nation’s economic recovery. Deck said Arkansas’ unemployment numbers have stayed in a fairly narrow range since January 2012.

The hope is that some vibrancy in one sector will spur activity in all, but, so far, that hasn’t happened. That is why some companies are expanding or adding jobs while others are stagnant.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell reported an 18.5 percent increase in Arkansas-based jobs — from 3,269 to 3,874. David Mee, the company’s CFO, said J.B. Hunt focused a lot on two divisions — Integrated Capacity Solutions and Dedicated Contract Solutions — that help explain the job growth.

ICS is the company’s consulting service and Dedicated Contract Solutions is its private fleet outsourcing division, Mee said.

“That’s a significant hiring bucket,” Mee said. He called the growth a natural progression, saying, “It is a little bit of economic recovery and our focus on growth areas. We’re trying to grow nationally in both of those areas as well.”

Mee said he doesn’t feel like the economy is “out of the woods” but doesn’t expect a fallback, either.

“There are a lot of headwinds,” Deck said. “We haven’t seen that self-fulfilling cycle. We’re working our way toward the rising tide.”

Two hospital systems moved up significantly on the list after recent purchases of other in-state assets.

The big mover was Community Health Systems Inc. of Franklin, Tenn., which reported 5,399 employees for this year. That represents an increase of 99.96 percent from the 2,700 Community Health reported in 2013.

The increase wasn’t from new jobs but from a purchase. Community bought Health Management Associates in January, and that acquisition included Sparks Health Systems in Fort Smith and Summit Hospital in Van Buren.

An official with Community Health said the company already owned and operated eight hospitals and numerous clinics in Arkansas. They now own and operate 70 hospitals and between 500 and 600 clinics nationwide, a company official said.

“Having more hospitals and more clinics provides opportunities in negotiations with insurance companies for rates,” said Patricia Driscoll, systems director of business development and marketing. “It puts us in more markets.”

St. Vincent Health System of Little Rock added 1,608 jobs after acquiring Mercy Hot Springs’ hospital and clinic, a purchase completed April 1. St. Vincent moved from 14th to eighth on the list of largest employers.

Another hospital, Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, remained firmly in the top 10 with 4,400 employees. There was a slight uptick from the previous year of 79 jobs, which represents an increase of 1.8 percent.

A hospital spokesman said there wasn’t one reason for the increase in jobs. The IT department added a handful of employees, as did several other departments.

The hospital also filled some long-vacant jobs, so the addition of 79 employees doesn’t mean that many new positions were created.

Tyson Foods reported 23,000 Arkansas employees, down about 180 from a year ago. “Because of the nature of the work, there is a lot of ebb and flow,” Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said. “Our employment has been fairly steady the last three years. I would expect them to remain fairly steady.”

(Correction, April 8, 2014: The state government has about 8,000 more employees than Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has in Arkansas. The original version of this story had an incorrect figure for the difference between the two.)