By Dwain Hebda
In towns large and small, in every industry and every skilled arena you can name, Arkansas is hiring. The state’s commercial engine is revving to run wide open, provided companies can find the manpower to stoke the furnace of growth. And that, experts say, has been no easy feat. Even as various job training and recruitment efforts take hold, the hiring picture in skilled careers is nothing short of desperate.
“The high-level answer is, we are making progress to the extent that more and more schools and institutions are responding and are becoming more focused in their efforts,” says Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re not making much headway because the numbers are so daunting. Skilled and technical careers, we’re screaming for talent.”
According to Zook, Arkansas companies lack between 55,000 and 60,000 skilled and technical workers at this very moment, a situation that is reflected from coast to coast. Nationwide, he says, about 7 million jobs go wanting in positions that pay exceptionally well. It’s a situation that resonates from Main Street to the halls of government and, more importantly, to discussions around Arkansas dinner tables.
“There’s been a significant impact on the conversations that the kids are having, not just with their parents, but with their teachers and with prospective employers across the state,” Zook says. “We’re doing a better job of letting kids understand the full range of opportunities that are available to them and the attractiveness of many of these career fields which can be entered with much less than a four-year baccalaureate degree. You need something beyond high school, certainly, but you can be well along in a career by the time your colleagues finish [four-year] college, if they finish, and then are still looking for a way to make a living.”
The State Chamber has spearheaded this effort through such highly visible efforts as Be Pro Be Proud, a technical jobs recruitment initiative that includes a customized semi-truck tricked out with interactive displays demonstrating the trades. In three years, the rig has made nearly 400 appearances at public schools, two-year colleges and various events statewide, hosting upwards of 42,500 students, some of whom have gone into skilled careers.
Equally impactful has been the work of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission which has played a pivotal role in promoting success stories and facilitating cooperation among various corporate and civic entities in Arkansas communities.
“Communities have really taken it upon themselves to partner with industry in and around their areas to identify the skills gaps that are needed,” says Mike Preston, AEDC executive director. “What are the vacant jobs and what are the skills they need to fill them? You’re seeing companies really coming together with communities and school districts and post-secondary schools and technical training centers to figure out a way to address this on a local basis.
“Having industry at the table, leading that discussion makes all the difference. Also, you’ve got to have the buy-in from the school district.”
One shining example among others is the Center of Excellence, a school within a school at North Little Rock High. Here, students engage in project-based learning across a variety of skilled career areas from allied health to carpentry to robotics in addition to their regular coursework. Karla Whisnant, principal of the COE, says the brand-new curriculum has opened eyes among students and parents alike.
“We’re working to develop relationships and break down barriers so that it’s no longer K-12,
plus the two-year school, plus a couple more years at a four-year university.” – Bentley Wallace
“In our medical profession program, our kids can walk away with a certified nursing assistant license. They can walk away with a pharmacy tech license. We just expanded the sports med,” she says. “I’ve got a manufacturing program where they’re learning how to program a CNC machine. I mean that’s job skill, job ready. They can walk into a job and say, ‘I know how to run this machine,’ and that makes them more of a viable employee.
“And, we’re giving them the soft skills,” she adds. “That’s a big issue, knowing how to look people in the eyes, knowing how to shake a hand properly. Knowing that there’s times to have your phone out and times not to have your phone out. Being prompt.”
Arkansas Northeastern College is another impressive citadel of technical training in the state. The Blytheville two-year school has always stressed professional education but has recently gone all-in on facilities that have made the campus the envy of the region and its graduates the highest paid among all Arkansas colleges and universities, not counting medical students.
ANC grads across all of its two-year degrees earn an average $51,624 and first-year graduates of its steelmaking program earn just over $93,000 in what is now one of the biggest steel-producing counties in America – Mississippi County, Arkansas. Even ANC certificates of proficiency are commanding $40,000-plus after a scant one semester of college schooling.
The only thing these careers have going against them, says James Shemwell, ANC president, is an image problem.
“When was the last time that you saw a movie or television show where the hero was a welder or a steelworker?” he says. “You don’t see what we call professions, or what a lot of people call the trades. We’ve tried to rebrand that a little bit because it has become such a sullied term. People in professions have great lives; they have a great quality of life. But culture is not there yet, because the culture doesn’t portray professions as desirable occupations.”
Shemwell says, unfortunately, parents aren’t the only ones who have bought into the myth of the four-year degree as the only way to a prosperous career.
“School counselors and school teachers have a lot of influence on young people, and until we can get our counselors truly onboard with the idea that working in these professions is important, we’re fighting an uphill battle,” he says. “It’s changing somewhat, but there’s still lots of teachers and counselors that will tell their kids, ‘You need to get a bachelor’s degree.’”
Even with the advancements that have been made at the secondary and post-secondary levels, there is much work left to do to produce the workforce companies need. Fortunately, multiple sectors of the education community appear more willing to cooperate in the effort than ever before.
“It’s not that the K-12 districts and the two-year colleges and the four-year universities haven’t talked in the past, but we’ve never seen this level of alignment of curriculum,” says Bentley Wallace, dean of the School of Technical and Professional Studies at University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College.
“Making sure that students who start their collegiate path while still in high school, that 100 percent of the work they do is not lost as they move up into a two-year school, a four-year school is fairly new. We’ve had concurrent education for a long time, but this is different now.”
Concurrent education, the ability of students to attend local colleges while still in high school at little or no cost, is an increasingly popular option. Students get a low-cost head start on higher education – earning certificates and sometimes even an associate’s degree by high school graduation – and local industry gains a qualified worker.
“We’re working to develop relationships and break down barriers so that it’s no longer K-12, plus the two-year school, plus a couple more years at a four-year university,” Wallace says. “We look at it more in a pre-K-through-20 model where that continuum doesn’t have the hard stops at high school graduation or at an associate’s degree. It is much more fluid.”
Wallace says one challenge for educators at all levels is to produce the well-rounded individual, no matter what their professional aspirations. As even the most industrial of workplaces continues to evolve, it’s increasingly critical that job readiness not be defined by technical skill alone.
“We’ve got to have core competencies across these technical degrees regardless of the subject matter,” he says. “You’ve got to be computer savvy. You’ve got to be able to think critically. You’ve got to communicate effectively. You’ve got to be able to locate information and read and communicate effectively in writing. All of those things are the commonalities across all of those programs regardless of the curriculum. It’s really those basic employability skills that transcend everything.
“The heavy lift today is making sure we have good, qualified people who will be safe and productive and have those core competencies. We can teach them the technical aspects if they’ve got the want-to, but we’ve got to make sure that we’re turning out people who have those core competencies or the rest of it doesn’t matter.