March/April 2015 Issue
Manufacturing jobs pay well but aren’t sexy.
The state is trying to improve training and PR.
Photography by Sara Blancett Reeves
Top Photo: Workers are fabricating all manner of decks, beams, girders, and flanges for a bridge over the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky.
Inside the sprawling Prospect Steel fabrication plant in Little Rock, Ark., where an army of workers is turning raw plate metal into sweeping sections of a 2,100-foot cable-span bridge, the reality of Arkansas’ skills gap is everywhere.
Leading a goggled visitor past the blazing glow of blowtorches, Patrick Schueck, president of Lexicon Inc., the parent company of Prospect, is also a compelling spokesman for the real-world impact of the competency crisis.
The 40-something son of the company founder has immense regard for the expertise of his master welders, metal fitters, and assemblers, as well as his crackerjack torch-flame cutters, machinists, and robotic torch operators.
“These are smart, highly skilled people here, and they are making good money,” he said looking around a clean-swept, open-air space the size of six football fields placed end-to-end.
In this space, skilled metal workers have built components for everything from a rocket test stand in Mississippi to a power plant in Louisiana to the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium in Texas. On this day they are fabricating all manner of decks, beams, girders, and flanges for a bridge over the Ohio River at Louisville, Ky., set for completion by fall. To do their jobs they must understand the unique behaviors of steel, read complex engineer’s drawings, and decipher highly technical manuals. They must also apply mathematical formulas to assemblies, manipulate a robot where human hands can’t reach, and discern their own strength of motion with a cutting tool.
That’s because absolute perfection is required here, every hole aligned faultlessly with the next so that bolts or cables will stay anchored for decades.
“See there?” Scheuck said pointing to a heavy component with a hole through it. “If the angle of that is off even a little, the cable won’t go through. There’s lots of geometry in that sucker. And everything they do must be [that] precise.”
And in Arkansas, he said, there just aren’t enough people who know how to do that.
“It was nothing like this for my dad,” Scheuck said of his nagging recruitment problem.
The company was started in the 1960s, when manufacturing plants were the top employers and the workforce ballooned to such record heights that vocational and technical high schools, stressing very specific proficiencies, churned out workers who could do one job well, which was all they needed.
Not any more. Technology and globalization have changed the landscape and made those jobs much more highly skilled, demanding more technical and communications ability on every project, and a much higher comprehension of math, science, and even reading. The production workers Schueck needs today must be able to work from complex, computer-generated designs as well as equipment manuals that are more technical than ever before.
“All technology is advancing very quickly,” lamented Marla Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Aristotle, a central Arkansas interactive advertising agency and Internet service provider. She said she is virtually always in need of more people who can code, program, do software graphic design, and manage complex digital platforms.
The good news is that the Workforce Alliance in Washington, D.C., which tracks employment trends nationwide, said “mid-level skills jobs” —defined as jobs that require an industry-recognized certificate or an associate’s degree but not a bachelor’s degree — amount to nearly half of all jobs in the United States today. And many employers imagine adding 10 percent more in the next decade.
Meanwhile, that demand has pushed up pay handsomely. Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said starting salaries for graduates with a liberal arts degree usually range from $25,000 to $40,000, and the state Department of Education pegs a starting teacher’s salary at $32,600.
Meanwhile, Zook said, a welder with an industry-authorized national certificate (from someplace like the Tulsa Welding School) can come out of a two-year program and earn $60,000 easily, and within a few years on the job make six figures.
“But not at Lexicon,” he added.
Because it’s hard to find people with those certifications in Arkansas, a company like Lexicon is forced to hire people without them at a lower wage, then train them up; in time, they will make as much, but it takes longer.
Zook also said he heard a Wal-Mart ad on the radio saying the company needed trained and experienced truck drivers with a commercial license, promising them they can get home every night and earn a salary of $72,000.
“So you can go get your [commercial license] and you can make twice the median salary [$35,000] in Arkansas,” he said.
Yet in Arkansas, young people and their parents tend to look down on these jobs and resist pursuing them, said Sandra Porter, associate director of career and technical education at the Arkansas Department of Career Education.
More than 20 percent of high school students in the state do not graduate, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and decent paying jobs for them, even if they get a GED, have all but disappeared, Zook said. So most high school graduates opt to follow an academic path, where ultimately more than half of them drop out and settle into low-wage jobs with little prospect for advancement, Porter added.
Dated stereotypes are part of the reason so many shun a technical career path, Zook said. He’s a former paper industry executive and economic development administrator.
He added that too often manufacturing, auto mechanics, machinists, electronics, and even construction trades are seen as low-level, low-skill, dirty, and even dangerous jobs. Girls especially veer away from them, even though girls often can be better at some of these trades.
Vocational education began suffering from an image problem in the mid-1990s when vocational electives in high school became something of a dumping ground for students who were not succeeding academically. Some community colleges even removed the word “vocational” from their names, emphasizing their mission was as a steppingstone to a four-year college as much as a place to learn mid-level job skills.
Testimony to that shift in emphasis, perhaps, is the 100,000-square-foot Fine Arts Building going up now at Pulaski Technical College (PTC) in North Little Rock, which is being built ahead of needed upgrades to the school’s welding program. That program, which can hardly graduate students fast enough, is still housed in a building put up by students in 1970, and its equipment is so out-of-date that graduates cannot earn the national certification they need for the best jobs, noted Margaret Ellibee, the college’s president. (The decision to fund the fine arts building first preceded her arrival on campus two years ago.)
Bill Stovall, executive director of the nonprofit association of Arkansas Community Colleges, said that emphasis is not necessarily a bad thing, since there has been considerable effort among the state’s 22 community colleges to ensure that the academic side of an associate’s degree was not lost in the push for first-rate, more technical job skills.
But a whole new pressure is building now — from career education professionals, state workforce development policymakers, business and industry leaders, and state legislators — to make these institutions the new beacons of hope for fixing the skills gap not just at factories like Lexicon but at hospitals with sonographer needs, contractors with building-trade needs, and lumber companies with machinist needs.
The new vision is for two-year colleges to collaborate with local public schools to introduce young people early to jobs that specialized skills can get them, then put in place a parallel track for them to learn many of those skills before they graduate from high school. The colleges would focus on skills their region’s industries need most, maybe even with equipment and/or instructor help from those employers.
“After all, we have skin in this game, so we should be willing to get that involved,” Johnson said.
Conversations about how to make this happen have been underway for a decade, but cost is invariably cited as the big barrier.
Ironically, the most exemplary program is in the Delta, one of the poorest parts of the state, at West Memphis Community College (WMCC). A consortium of community colleges in that region, put together by longtime WMCC president Glen Fenter, launched it with $66 million from federal grants, philanthropic gifts, and capital campaign dollars, as well as $4 million from the Arkansas General Assembly and $12 million from the National Science Foundation.
And it is making a huge difference, Fenter said.
“I have come to realize that never before have we had a short-term educational opportunity with more power to transform an individual than this,” he said. “But we are also changing the economic landscape of this region. This was an investment in our future.”
A crushing defeat — the state’s failed courtship of Toyota to build a factory in Marion (it went to Tupelo, Miss., instead) — pushed Fenter to act.
“Toyota cited concerns about the region’s ability to supply a high-quality labor force, and it was like divine intervention,” he said. “I said we have to change our strategy. Then I started chasing the Department of Labor grant that helped establish this program.”
Recognized a few years later as a national model by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program has won a whole new round of attention by business leaders in other parts of the state, particularly central Arkansas, as the work-skills crisis gets worse.
Now top leaders of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, with Scheuck on the executive team, are recommending that Fenter’s model be duplicated at PTC, in partnership with the Little Rock School District’s Metropolitan Career-Technical Center and several middle and high schools.
“The model works,” said Fenter, who will leave his college after this summer to head up the nonprofit Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, which will give him a chance to serve a larger region, including western Tennessee and Mississippi.
What continuing impact he will have on the rest of Arkansas, including the Little Rock Chamber’s proposal, likely rests in the hands of state Sen. Jane English, a Republican representing North Little Rock. She has become the key champion of workforce development reform in the Capitol. She also has the ear of the new governor, Asa Hutchinson, who, at her urging, campaigned on this issue. Through a spokesman, Hutchinson said he is still “working with the legislature, state agencies, and industries to build a system in which the proper training programs are in place [so] a student who chooses to work in a trade or any manufacturing or technical field has options and support to meet that goal.”
English, a former industry recruiter with the Arkansas Department of Economic Development (AEDC), said building a supply chain of trained, skilled workers is the only way this state will ever woo the Toyotas of the world and keep the likes of Lexicon.
“It is absolutely critical to growing our economy,” she said.
So last year she made a deal with then-Gov. Mike Beebe, against all her conservative leanings, to swing her vote to his side on extending the private option for Medicaid expansion by one year in return for state money for this cause.
He promised her $15 million to be administered by AEDC. She wants to use that to streamline the state’s various career education efforts, avoid duplication, cut costs, and fund more generously the programs that give workers skills that will land them jobs and support industries.
Her first move will be to seek a law to create an Office of Skills Management under the Department of Career Education; Hutchinson has appointed Charisse Childers, a Ph.D. with years of workforce education experience, to run that state agency.
English said much of the $150 million of state and federal money already going into jobs training in Arkansas may be paying for good efforts, but one hand often has no idea what the other is doing. So of her $15 million from Beebe, she imagines one-third going to create this new office, one-third going to grants to two-year colleges to expand their programs, and one-third going for grants to secondary schools for instructors, equipment, career coaches, or whatever else will put students onto pathways toward skilled, high-demand jobs.
Changing the image of those jobs might need to come first, and that has not been lost on the state chamber’s Zook.
He and his colleagues have already raised money to pay for a slick, mobile campaign — created by Stone Ward, a Little Rock ad agency — that will travel to schools and communities to champion the job possibilities from this kind of skills training. It will amount to re-branding these careers and showing students what good-paying work looks and feels like. He hopes it will draw some back to classes in advanced manufacturing — the very skills that Scheuck at Lexicon needs. Porter, the Career Education Department director, said most of the career centers her agency oversees have stopped offering those courses because nobody is signing up for them.
English said there needs to be a path like this for young people who spurn an academic college path — and she is speaking from experience.
“I had one like that myself,” she said of her son, now 51. “Bright, high IQ, but just hated school, didn’t want to be put in the gifted and talented pool, either. He said, ‘Mom I don’t fit with those people,’ and he didn’t.”
He was in trouble all the time and dropped out of high school at age 16. Eventually he ended up in a diesel mechanics program at a vocational-technical school and, on his own, earned certification as a marine engineer to work on cruise ships
“I just wish he could have found out earlier in life what good, challenging jobs are out there that do not require a college degree,” English said.