At the inaugural Under 40 Forum on Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson highlighted how he thinks Arkansans must work to attract and retain talent.
The forum, which is taking place at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Friday and Saturday, includes about 30 honorees from the 2015 40 Under 40 classes from Arkansas Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.
Each year, the newspapers’ 40 Under 40 classes highlight the state’s top young professionals in business, nonprofits and public service.
Presented in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, the Under 40 Forum invites those honorees to network and address key issues facing the state. The Clinton School and Rockefeller Institute plan to submit a report based on conversations at the forum to governor’s office, the Legislature and other leaders.
Hutchinson’s Friday afternoon keynote highlighted six ways he thinks Arkansas can retain talent. He called marketing Arkansas “easy and fun,” and spoke from his experiences traveling to Europe, Cuba and Silicon Valley in California.
“What we are going through is not unique to what other states are going through,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not finished yet. We’re going to grow the economy and keep talent here.”
First and foremost, the governor said, “We have to create a dynamic economic environment in the state. People don’t want to come somewhere where you don’t have a growing economy.”
Hutchinson also said the state must have an environment that fosters technology.
“The convenience, the technology, software development and applications; it’s an environment that creates solutions,” Hutchinson said. “I am convinced that we can market ourselves as a micro-hub for technology in this state.”
Hutchinson emphasized his recent computer coding initiative, which has placed coding classes in every high school in the state, as a starting point toward creating such an environment.
Education is also key, the governor said, citing the need for a thriving higher education system and research programs. Hutchinson said that as a law student, he almost attended a university on the East Coast, but a conversation with one person changed his mind and he stayed in Arkansas instead, likely changing his entire career path.
“I love what we’re doing to open the doors for out-of-state students,” he said. “The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville has 30 or 40 percent of students from out of state, and higher education is a vehicle to recruit that talent pool here.”
Hutchinson also said the state needs more positive branding in order to overcome stereotypes — hillbillies, for example — and the national attention the state received during the desegregation crisis of the 1950s.
And he said Arkansas must maintain and promote its high quality of life, the definition of which has expanded to include more than previously thought. He listed biking trails, museums and downtown nightlife as a few aspects of this, but said quality of life is “much more complicated” than it was in the past.
Finally, Hutchinson said Arkansas must have a focused mission.
“Perhaps you all will come up with a focused mission for our state while you’re here,” he said.
Hutchinson said that currently many regions or cities within the state have clearer missions than Arkansas as a whole. For example, northwest Arkansas is branding itself as a destination for arts and downtown eateries, he said.
After his presentation, the 40 Under 40 honorees asked questions and brought up other discussion points.
One attendee said the state must work to attract young families, not just recent college graduates. To do that successfully, she said Arkansas must have better childhood education.
Other attendees emphasized technology in their questions and comments, and pointed out the need for more high-speed communication services across the state.
Another said that although Arkansas centrally located geographically, it’s difficult to travel from place to place. He said flights from places like Little Rock to Chicago or Charlotte are overpriced. Hutchinson agreed and said there’s a need for more affordable transportation in order to effectively recruit people who have family and friends living in other cities.
For the remainder of the event, attendees will take part in discussions, networking and open conversations about ways for the state to appeal to young workers. The goal is for the event to become an annual gathering for 40 Under 40 honorees.