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More skills training needed in Arkansas says state jobs chief

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The world population is expected to explode to 14 billion people in the next 61 years, according to figures cited by Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille.

And while the rest of the world may balk at the prospect of how to feed a world double the size of today's population, Tennille said Arkansas is primed to do that and more, explaining that it all comes back to educating the students of today and the leaders of tomorrow.

Tennille's speech to the Fort Smith Area Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Breakfast at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith highlighted some of the many innovations that have changed the world that began in Arkansas and explained how education will lead the state even further.

Putting focus on the movement of goods, he highlighted the state's logistics industry as a primary example of what Arkansas innovation has done to change the world.

"Logistics was invented in Arkansas. Before Sam Walton and David Glass and J.B. Hunt, what we now know as logistics was just people driving things around in trucks. There is now incredible science behind how we move goods around the world. The concept of 'just in time delivery' — which if you're in business in this room, I promise you understand 'just in time.' That's the way the world runs now — that was invented in Bentonville, Arkansas."

He explained that the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville is among the top logistics programs in the nation, again emphasizing the impact Arkansas has had and will have on the world.

Tennille also pointed to advancements in agriculture, adding that research taking place at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was leading to increased yields for farmers, garnering attention from as far away as Vietnam and leading the university to launch a doctoral program focused on agriculture.

Noting the state's seven Fortune 500 companies, while also pointing out that Arkansas has never had a population with more than 3 million people, Tennille said he felt there was something that had taken place in the state.

"There's something in the water in this state. There is something that sets the people of Arkansas apart from our counterparts around the country and around the world."

But in order to continue Arkansas' competition in an ever increasing global economy and serving the needs of the world's projected 14 billion people, Tennille said it would take more than just will power and determination. Students, he said, now must have training beyond their high school diploma in order to secure a good job and the state must continue to invest in education in order to see innovation continue in the decades to come.

He said the biggest hurdle to education has been the cost, which he said is one reason he believes Arkansas has largely trailed the entire nation in terms of residents holding at least a bachelor's degree. Tennille said with the passage of the Arkansas Scholarship lottery, more students are able to not only start a college education, but also finish what they have started.

While there has been a lot of focus put on four year degrees, the focus must go further, Tennille said, explaining that skill sets obtained through concurrent enrollment programs for high school students or vocational education programs will be vitally important, as well.

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"There are incredibly talented, capable, high achieving – dare I say wealthy – people who don't have a four-year bachelor’s degree. It's not the end all and be all. Now do we need more Arkansans with four-year bachelor degrees? Sure we do. We're last, or second to last, depending (on different rankings). That's unacceptable. We've got to have more. But do we need an increasingly large population of specifically skilled individuals who have helped make our industrial and manufacturing (industry) efficient and productive? Absolutely. It's not either/or, which is the choice I think a lot of folks were laboring under for a long time."

For Arkansas to meet the needs of the world, he said everyone will need education and training after high school.

"Call it what you want. Call it college. Call vocational education. Call it technical training. Call it what you want. Everybody's got to do something after they graduate from high school."

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