Abernathy: Workforce Improvement the Key to Growing Business in Arkansas

Abernathy: Workforce Improvement the Key to Growing Business in Arkansas

Arkansas must improve its workforce because a skilled labor pool attracts economic development projects, Ted Abernathy said Wednesday at the annual Arkansas State Chamber/Associated Industries of Arkansas.

“Everybody is chasing talent,” Abernathy, a managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, said at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. “It’s the No. 1 reason — when people look around the country, when you ask a business what causes them to make a choice about where they’re going to invest, where they’re going to add jobs — the No. 1 thing is the availability of skilled labor. That’s not a surprise to anyone.”

Abernathy described a supply-demand imbalance in skilled workers. People want good jobs, but employers say they can’t find workers with the right skills, even though more people are graduating from high school and college than before, he said.

Meanwhile, the rate at which technology, including automation and data analytics, is advancing means businesses don’t always know what skills they’ll need workers to have 10 years from now.

“The world is changing faster than we’ve ever seen it change, so you’re trying to hit a target, but you don’t know what it is,” Abernathy said.

Because fixing the talent pipeline is too complex for policymakers, the result is “policy paralysis,” he said. 

Abernathy said Arkansas is in the middle of the pack when it comes to multiple workforce trends. While Arkansas has a historically low unemployment rate, it also has a low labor force participation rate. And it’s in the top 15 of states expected to lose the most jobs to automation.

Abernathy spent the second half of his keynote summarizing the “Workforce Development in Arkansas: Strategies For Lifelong Learning & Preparation For Work” report his firm prepared for the state chamber.

Among the report’s recommendations: increase the flexibility of regulations so that K-12 schools can implement innovative career readiness and work experience programs, and expand work-based learning with apprenticeships in sectors that are growing but don’t have a tradition of apprenticeships, like health care and information technology.

Abernathy praised the state for organizing its workforce development efforts around industry sectors but said those “best practices in the country” need to be spread around evenly throughout Arkansas. 

The report also recommended strengthening talent attraction and retention. Population growth is a mixed bag in Arkansas, with the migration of people ages 25-34 being a challenge. But other states have it worse.

“Be smart about all this. Use data, and monitor reports. Make sure people are held accountable,” he said. “You give people money for an outcome, study the outcomes. If they’re not doing it, take money away. If they are doing it, give them more. But you have to track stuff. Workforce and education data has to be for a purpose, and you have to make sure it’s available.

“The challenge for you, as leaders, is ridiculously simple, except not, which is to gather and filter all the information you can, simplify it into something that’s actionable and do it fast,” he said. “Sounds easy, right? Take your information, synthesize it, and do something with it.

“This is a time of rapid change. Serendipity is not a strategy. Serendipity doesn’t work as a strategy. You can’t just assume that inertia fixes stuff for you. You have to decide to do things very specifically in the state.”