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‘Jobs Now’ Summit Examines Growing Skills Gap

4 min read

Changing mindsets and educational models to address a growing manufacturing skills gap was the focus of Tuesday’s “Jobs Now: Arkansas Works When We Do” summit hosted by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

The event focused on workforce development in the state and attracted legislative, business and educational leaders including Gov. Mike Beebe, who provided opening remarks.

A lunchtime panel discussion included Bill Hannah, chairman of the board for Nabholz Construction; Phil Simon, global manager for dealer and product training at John Deere Co.; and Maverick Transporation CEO Steve Williams.

The afternoon panel discussion featured Tori Huggins, lead welding instructor with the Arkansas Pipe Trades Association; Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College in West Memphis; Delta Regional Authority co-chair Chris Masingill; and Joe Quinn, senior director of public affairs and government relations for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville.

Roby Brock of Talk Business & Politics moderated each session.

State Chamber president and CEO Randy Zook called workforce development the most important conversation taking place in Arkansas. He cited data that indicates a growing skills gap in Arkansas:

  • 49 percent of skilled trade workers in Arkansas are 45 years of age and older with almost 18 percent between the ages of 55 and 64.
  • 2 in 3 parents prefer their children not pursue a skilled trade.
  • Fewer students are considering careers in manufacturing or a skilled trade like construction work as an attractive option after high school.
  • Tens of thousands of high-wage jobs are left unfilled in Arkansas and more than 600,000 nationwide. 

“We know what needs to be done,” Zook said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting the different sectors — political, business and education — aligned.”

Consensus from panel members:

  • The current educational model fails to adequately prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, most of which will require specialized training.
  • Parents must be convinced that college represents only one potential path after high school.
  • Students must be placed in the best positions to succeed, whichever path they choose.
  • Jobs in the manufacturing and trade sectors represent an easier path to a middle class lifestyle than many realize, and industry leaders need to make more students aware of that.

Mid-South has been a leader in workforce development among the state’s two-year colleges and is a member of the Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium. Since its inception in 1992, Mid-South has been awarded more than $81 million in grants, including a $3.3 million grant to establish an aviation tech training program in partnership with FedEx.

Other career training programs at the school target manufacturing, allied health, diesel technology and transporation technology.

Fenter said the current educational system needs to place students in a position to grow from tax consumers into tax producers. 

“We’ve got to examine the educational structure in Arkansas,” he said. “If we could start this all over, it wouldn’t be anything like it is today. When you’ve got kids who can’t get a job out of high school, then it’s time to change the high school model.”

Fenter noted that funding for two-year colleges in the state hasn’t been increased since 2005. Despite that lack of funding, he believes Arkansas, like most Southern states, is uniquely positioned to take advantage of a changing landscape because of its infrastructure — central location, access to waterways — and the work ethic of its populace.

“The jobs available for students today will be ones that probably didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said. “We have a moral obligation to re-engineer education to give people every opportunity to succeed.”

Huggins, a Hendrix College graduate who found herself “broke” after college, discovered a new career path through welding. She said welders are “falling off the face of the earth” with a decreasing number of new welders coming up to replace those who retire. 

A trade like welding should be viewed as just another option after high school and not as a last resort, she said.

Williams said beginning drivers at Maverick can earn as much as $52,000 a year with a pay scale fthat reaches $80,000.

Maintenance technicians at Maverick can earn between $15 and $25 an hour, he said, and some skilled techs in the industry who work on the trucks can make as much as $50 an hour.

“There’s a lot of money being spent to get that brainpower,” he said.

John Deere partners with Arkansas State University’s two-year campus in Beebe to train students to work on tractors.

Simon said GPS diagnostic techs, for example, can start at $15-$25 an hour.

“How do we get people educated and into jobs that have these compensation packages and give them a good quality of life,” he asked.

Hannah said the biggest challenge for Nabholz is making the construction industry appealing enough to attract workers. Panel members acknowledged that manufacturing and construction jobs still carry a negative stigma.

Factories aren’t the dirty, grimy and sometimes potentially hazardous workplaces of previous generations. Most are spotless and very high tech, and it’s the industry’s job to make students aware of that change, they agreed.

“If we can’t overcome a lack of understanding and appreciation a person can have in this craft, then we’re going to struggle to get them here,” Hannah said.

Yet jobs are there for the taking. Hannah said the Gulf Coast area from Houston into Florida is booming with construction, and that 83,000 construction workers would be needed in Louisiana alone between now and the end of 2017.

“Where are all those workers going to come from?” 

Masingill said business and industry need to be driving the issue.

“Changes need to be systematic and holistic and in partnership with economic development,” he said. “We don’t have the time to have the same conversations about workforce development we’ve had for the last 30 years. The time is now.”

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