Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday said she will nominate former Entergy Arkansas Inc. president and CEO Hugh McDonald as the secretary of the Arkansas Department of Commerce.
McDonald, a familiar face in Arkansas, retired from Entergy Arkansas, the state's largest electric utility, in 2016 after a 34-year career with the company.
He's Sanders' second cabinet pick this week, and she hinted Thursday that she'll announce at least one other appointee next week.
"We will work together to responsibly phase out the state income tax, foster an environment for our businesses to create thousands of higher paying jobs, and grow our state's economy, while attracting businesses nationwide and worldwide to make Arkansas their home," Sanders said in a news release about McDonald's appointment. "My vision for our state's economy will take us to the next level, creating a brighter, more prosperous future for all Arkansans."
Sanders made the announcement at the Arkansas State University System headquarters across the street from the state Capitol in Little Rock. On Wednesday, she said she will nominate chief counsel Shane Khoury to be secretary of the state Department of Energy and Environment.
McDonald became president and CEO of Entergy Arkansas in 2000. He led Entergy Arkansas’ 2005 decision to exit the utility's long-standing system agreement. And he championed Entergy Arkansas’ move to join the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.
These days, McDonald is on the board of trustees of The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, a trustee for the North Dakota State University Foundation, and board member of the Arkansas Career Education & Workforce Development Board.
"Together, we will foster a business-friendly environment with a strong workforce development pipeline that allows businesses to recruit and retain highly skilled workers," McDonald said.
Sanders said one of her biggest priorities is to improve workforce development, and that McDonald's experience working on workforce education issues is among the reasons he'll do a good job leading the department, which includes the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Division of Workforce Services and the Office of Skills Development.
"It's really hard to encourage businesses that already exist here in the state to expand and grow, or to recruit new business into the state, if we don't have the ability to meet the workforce demand right now," Sanders said. "And over the course of the last two years, no matter what part of the state I've traveled to, no matter what industry I have met with, I've yet to meet a business that will tell you they can find and hire the skilled, qualified workers that they need.
"And so making sure we address that, I think, has to be one of our biggest priorities. And one of the reasons that I think he's going to do such a phenomenal job is because he has so much experience in that space, and an ability to really help us build on that."
Sanders said she'll aim to improve coordination among all the state's workforce efforts. And she said she doesn't think Arkansas is doing a good enough job reaching students at an earlier age — perhaps in ninth grade — to show them what career and education opportunities exist for them.
"You know, the majority of kids are not going to go to college, they want to go a different path," McDonald said. "And so providing that access, number one, providing that visibility to them, is hugely important."
McDonald said it will be important to properly fund technical schools and secondary education centers.
The state Department of Commerce was formed in 2019 as part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's massive reorganization of state government. It has been led since 2019 by Mike Preston, who has also been executive director of AEDC since Hutchinson's first term. Commerce also includes the state Bank Department, the Securities Department and the Insurance Department.
On Wednesday, Sanders praised Preston for his work at the department.
"You've built a great team, and you're making it easier for me in the transition," she said.
McDonald is a past board member of the United States Chamber of Commerce, the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business Advisory Board, and the University of Arkansas Little Rock College of Business Advisory Council.
He also served as past board chair of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Little Rock Regional Chamber, Fifty for the Future, the Arkansas Research Alliance, the Arkansas Career Education and Workforce Development Board, and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Board of Advisors.
He has a bachelor's in construction management from North Dakota State University and earned master's in business administration from the University of New Orleans in 1987.