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The Worker Shortfall (Lance Turner Editor’s Note)

3 min read

Would you be surprised to learn that Arkansas is suffering from a severe worker shortage?

Having heard from many of our readers — business owners, executives, managers and other decision-makers — I am not. Post-pandemic, it seems that everyone is having a harder time finding and retaining workers, particularly in the skilled trades.

But the situation in Arkansas might be worse than I thought. A report a couple of months ago by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the worker shortfall across America ranks Arkansas among 16 states with the “most severe” shortages, with only 44 available workers for every 100 open jobs in September. The report said Arkansas had 84,000 job openings at the time and 37,339 unemployed people. The labor force participation rate was 57.7% and the unemployment rate was 2.7%.

According to the chamber, all states face some kind of worker shortage. Nationally, the U.S. has 9.6 million job openings but only 6.4 million unemployed workers, according to a separate chamber report last week. While the economy added millions of jobs after the pandemic, many people left work entirely. The chamber says that today, there are 1.7 million fewer Americans in the labor force compared with February 2020.

One way that states are combating the shortage is through career and technical education programs that allow students to earn high school and college credit and gain work experience in particular fields. But as it turns out, some of those career pathways might not be as finely tuned to a state’s or region’s job needs as they should be.

That’s the conclusion of an upcoming report by the Walton Family Foundation, which examined the career and technical education programs in northwest Arkansas. As Marty Cook reported in last week’s issue, the final report will show that many of the programs pursued by high school students are in career pathways that are not the region’s high priorities.

For example, a majority of the pathways completed by students in the past three years were in agriculture-related fields. Agriculture is a major driver of Arkansas’ economy, but in northwest Arkansas, the report says, it’s only projected to add about 180 jobs over the next five years. Greater needs exist, the report concludes, in health care (projected to add 3,600 jobs), followed by office management (2,500) and manufacturing (2,100).

Earlier this year, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed Arkansas’ first chief workforce officer, Mike Rogers, to tackle the state’s workforce challenge head-on. Rogers, a former Tyson Foods Inc. director who also taught high school agriculture and industrial maintenance for 20 years, leads a workforce cabinet made up of other state department leaders, including from Commerce and Education.

“I’m convinced that Arkansas can build the blueprint to address the workforce shortage here and set the model and the tone for the entire country,” Sanders told attendees at last month’s Arkansas Economic Development Foundation luncheon in Little Rock.

Arkansas employers are ready for a solution, and we just might have the pieces and people in place to do it. Now it’s time to get to work.

Lance Turner is the editor of Arkansas Business.
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