Improving higher education, deepening the Arkansas River and mobilizing the Fort Smith regional workforce to meet demands of site selectors, were top priorities announced at the First Friday Breakfast on Nov. 2.
The monthly event, hosted by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, featured updates from the Fort Smith Regional Council (FSRC) CEO group at the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) campus.
Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith and chairman of the group, highlighted the group's three-part plan:
• To develop partnerships with other CEO groups such as Fifty for the Future in Little Rock and the Northwest Arkansas Council;
• To strengthen educational opportunities for the Fort Smith regional workforce; and,
• Create an environment for economic development through improved infrastructure, more specifically the deepening of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS) to 12 feet.
Sicard suggested softening the requirements on maintaining a scholarship, targeting more non-traditional students with scholarship dollars and "making financial aid somewhat need-based," as things the region should support to enhance the workforce.
“The graduation rate at UAFS has risen 50%, so we're going in the right direction. However, our numbers could be dramatically better if we were more strategic with how we fund to focus on completion," Sicard said, adding that 415 students at UAFS had "90-plus hours but did not return in the fall."
Sicard said "50% have a 3- or 4-point (grade point) average," and that the reason students are not finishing is due to "financial hardship."
Using the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program as an example, Sicard said, "A very small portion of the funds are going to non-traditional students."
"We're giving the vast majority to traditional students just finishing high school when you see that many of these students are not staying past their sophomore year. Then you have a huge group of adults that are very close to getting their degree, so we think it makes some sense to allocate more funds to where there is a much higher probability (of graduation) and it is much cheaper to get those adults in our community and in our state finished."
Sicard continued: "And it's not just about getting people four-year degrees. Site selectors are looking at these statistics and are aware of the challenges that they may face on finding highly qualified adults, so it's an economic development issue as well."
On the topic of educational retention, Sicard stated that "to get a scholarship it takes either a 2.5 GPA or a 19 on the ACT. To maintain your scholarship you have to maintain a 2.5 GPA. So, as an example, an engineering student who desperately needs to graduate, has a 2.4 GPA going in to their senior year and they're going to lose their scholarship. They may be working 30 or 40 hours per week, and they really need that scholarship money, and we're going to take it away from that student and give it to someone, who may not have even had a 2.5 GPA in high school. That, to me, doesn't make much sense. So we (FSRC) think, in some areas, we should look at softened requirements for what it takes to maintain that scholarship.”
Sicard commended Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, for "working with the legislature to address those things" and admitted "it would be difficult."
Sicard believes that the FSRC, "as employers of a tremendous amount of people in this region, can step up as CEOs and support our employees in getting their degrees. One of the ways we're going to start doing that is have a survey among our 23 members and find out what we're doing financially to support them in that."
Sicard added: "First National does a lot, and I'm proud of that, but one thing I've thought about is, 'How are we encouraging them?' I've probably failed to do that. I'm sure I do have several employees with college credit hours, and I or my management team hasn't taken the time to encourage them to go back to school and finish their degrees. I think the survey will help us to think of creative ways for how we can encourage them to do that and, quite frankly, create a little bit of peer pressure amongst ourselves to do more."
FSRC member Cliff Beckham, president and CEO at USA Truck, Inc., agreed, adding that his company had "at least 60" employees with college credit hours that were unable to finish due to financial hardship.
Addressing the need for a well-trained workforce, specifically the importance of growing qualified candidates locally as opposed to recruiting from other areas, Beckham said,
"Our lifeblood as a business is our people, and we are limited in our long-term ability to succeed by the growth rate of the talent pool here in the Fort Smith region. We can recruit and relocate talent into this area, but it's expensive, it's difficult, it's risky. It is not scalable as we grow. It doesn't do anything to help the employment situation in the Fort Smith area, and it really does very little to make our community more attractive to other large employers. A far better strategy for us as a region is to grow and develop the capabilities of our workforce."
FSRC member Melissa Hanesworth, managing director at Pernod Ricard, spoke specifically to the advantages of deepening the Arkansas River from nine to 12 feet.
Hanesworth said the difference between the two depths was about "47% of additional payload" and that transit time and costs would be cheaper with a deepened channel.
“The estimated river transit time is seven days from New Orleans to Fort Smith. As a comparative it takes me 14 days just to get movement from Indiana to Fort Smith by rail. Big difference. I can actually get liquid from Puerto Rico to Canada faster. Almost twice as long just because of the different rail connections. So it can potentially have a very large effect,” Hanesworth said.
Hanesworth commended workforce and operations in the area, but said that freight was "very expensive coming out of Fort Smith," adding that the 12-foot channel would be "a huge benefit for us."
Sicard closed with a final message to Congressional political delegates.
"There was a letter put out by national CEOs. It was in the Wall Street Journal – a fix-the-debt letter. To come up with a long-term resolution. To not go over the fiscal cliff. It (the national debt) is holding back economic development. It's holding back our attempts to improve industry. Honestly, there's so much concern because no one knows what the future entails. So we (FSRC) have decided to contribute in that effort."
Sicard continued: "We agree to send a letter to our congressional representatives to say, 'Listen, let's get this resolved. After the election, let's get this resolved. We've got to get this resolved.' And, quite frankly, there are going to have to be concessions. It's going to have to be bi-partisan. The idea that Republicans are going to be able to pass through a partisan plan with no bi-partisan support is very unlikely considering it takes at least 60 votes in the Senate."
“It's not a knock on our congressional delegates," Sicard added. "We're here to support them. Compromise is just the way the world works."