Jonesboro city leaders know it takes a highly skilled workforce to attract industry. Their efforts to build a base of highly skilled workers necessary for the recruitment of industry earned the city recognition as a 2011 Arkansas Business City of Distinction for Workforce Development.
“Cutting-edge training that delivers an immediate and sustained return on investment for existing and future employees is critical to the success of any workforce development strategy, and is absolutely essential in today’s ever-changing, globally competitive business environment,” said Mark Young, president and CEO of the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Attracting Industry, Jobs
The city created a Workforce Training Consortium in the mid-’90s to provide skills training for industry. The consortium is a nonprofit group of local industry and education leaders formed to develop workforce training, and its impact is tangible. In the last 15 years, Jonesboro has attracted seven major manufacturers to town, about one every other year. Jonesboro’s major manufacturers include: Frito Lay, which produces snack foods at its Jonesboro plant and employs 580; Nestle USA, frozen foods, 710; Alberto Culver, personal hair-care products, 200; StarTek, customer care center, 500; NEW Customer Service Companies, at-home customer care, 72; Nice-Pak, pre-moistened wipes, 50; and Nordex USA, wind turbines, 700 (with more to come).
In addition to new firms moving in, 13 major ex-pansions at existing manufacturers have added roughly 1,200 jobs since 2000. Companies wouldn’t locate to Jonesboro or expand their local operations without faith in a qualified workforce. “Jonesboro’s workforce development strategy is comprised of several key components, but the prevailing principle is that it is industry-driven, and that is powered by relevant, high-quality training,” Young said.
Following a strategic planning assessment of the city’s workforce development and training needs in 2009, the WTC joined the Chamber and the East Arkansas Business Development Council to provide funding for a director of workforce development. The new director, Shelle Randall, is charged with “building, coordinating and enriching an effective and forward-thinking workforce development program.” At her disposal is a new database platform, Executive Pulse, that tracks and notes industry trends.
Working With Local Schools
A big component to the city’s success in attracting and growing industry has been its relationships with local schools. Not only is Jonesboro home to four excellent public school districts, but it’s home to the state’s second-largest institution of higher learning, Arkansas State University. In response to a request from Nordex in the fall of 2009, the WTC spent $165,000 on state-of-the-art equipment for an advanced manufacturing program of study at ASU’s Technical College. The study of advanced manufacturing is called mechatronics, and is a multidisciplinary field of engineering combining mechanics, electronics, control theory and computer science.
“Mechatronics, simply put, is the new best practice of manufacturing,” Young said. “The skills acquired by students of the curriculum can be applied in the workplace to improve and optimize functionality, thus increasing competitiveness and long-term operational and financial success.”
Area high school students annually are recognized by the volunteer Workforce Development Committee. This past spring, almost 300 high school seniors were honored for “academic and attendance excellence” at the annual Arkansas Scholars reception. Students are introduced to the program at the end of their eighth-grade year and reintroduced as sophomores. Committee volunteers work with guidance counselors and principals in area schools to monitor students who meet Arkansas Scholars criteria. The number of students doing so rose by 3 percent in 2011, and three Jonesboro-area schools had more than 40 percent of graduating seniors meet the criteria.
“Not only is this an occasion for these college-bound seniors and their families to be congratulated, it is also an opportunity for business professionals to connect with future talent whom they may recruit back to Jonesboro and their organizations when formal education is complete,” Young said.
The program also honors elementary students recommended by teachers for outstanding achieve-ment. “Workforce development begins early, and this is an effective project that rewards a young person’s individual victory, setting her or him on the path toward a lifetime of achievement,” he said. And the Northeast Arkansas Career & Technical Center at Jonesboro High School provides technical, career and industrial education programs to students from 13 area schools.
Jonesboro is perhaps the most career-ready city in the state, evidenced by the more than 4,000 Career Readiness Certificates awarded as of last spring. CRCs are “portable credentials” based on assessments demonstrating to employers that a job candidate possesses the basic skills required for jobs in the current marketplace. “Even if a job seeker has a GED, high-school diploma or post-secondary degree, this further verifies that he or she can handle tasks such as finding information, reading instructions and directions, and working with numbers — all common in today’s workplaces,” Young said.
Several Jonesboro manufacturers, including Nestle, Alberto Culver, Nice-Pak and Post Foods, use the CRC program as an effective screening tool. Young said these companies report increased efficiency in the hiring process and the quality of candidates because of the of CRCs.