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Arkansas Aerospace Alliance focused on workforce training, incentives

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Arkansas is known as being a large exporter of farm-raised goods, such as rice and soybeans. But another export in Arkansas could be getting a push for incentives during the next legislative session in hopes that it will help expand the industry and make Arkansas competitive with surrounding states.

According to Chad Causey, executive director of the Arkansas Aerospace Alliance, the industry is among the largest exporters in the state and it is responsible for thousands of jobs.

"Companies employ about 9,000 in the industry" in Arkansas, he said.

And the industry continues to grow, in spite of cutbacks in government spending that typically fund contracts with large aerospace and defense contractors.

"The economy in aerospace is turning the corner. We're starting to see growth. Now there was a concern (about the impact) Sequestration (would have) on defense spending, but Lockheed Martin just had between a $250 and $500 million contract in ballistics. So there might be some contraction nationally but we're seeing some big awards for Camden that will bode well for them."

He said for the industry to continue to thrive in Arkansas, the state would have to continually work to have a qualified workforce available to meet the demands of companies already in the area and looking to come to the area.

"We're working with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Coalition and two- and four-year schools right now," he said. "But we are also working toward things we can do with the general assembly to further incentivize that workforce and attracting new workforce."

Already other surrounding states offer incentives to attract aerospace industry to their regions. Oklahoma officials recently passed legislation that would extend tax incentives to not only employers, but also employees, in the aerospace industry.

"The aerospace engineer tax credit has helped to create hundreds of new, high paying jobs for skilled Oklahomans," said Republican Gov. Mary Fallin on April 9, the day she signed the extension of the law. "It's also played a key role in maintaining Oklahoma's position as an internationally recognized hub for aerospace business. …When it comes to the growth-potential for aerospace in Oklahoma, the sky is truly the limit. This legislation will help us to attract and retain new business and retain the great jobs made available by industry giants like Boeing and American Airlines."

Causey said the AAA has watched the Oklahoma tax credit closely.

"That's something the Alliance is interested in," he said. "We have to look at the regional approach. We are competing for a trained workforce in the same region they are. We are interested in the ways they incentivize getting a trained workforce. That is something we will watch and consider for the next General Assembly. That is something we will advocate."

Before going to the General Assembly and seeking any sort of incentives or other programs to help the Arkansas aerospace industry, he said a platform is needed.

"We are in the midst of developing an aerospace platform that we would take to the General Defense and Aviation Caucus members to work with them to incentivize further ways that we can attract and retain a trained workforce."

According to Causey, addressing incentives and working with local schools to create programs is just one part of the equation. He said Arkansas needs to continue promoting itself as a regional player in the field, as well, marketing itself to suppliers that serve larger aerospace manufacturers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Part of that promotion involves taking Arkansas to the aerospace industry through events like international air shows and industry conferences, instead of expecting the industry to reach out to Arkansas. Causey said plans are already underway for a state delegation to visit an international air show near London in the United Kingdom later this year.

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"So we're already in the process of educating the industry that we're located here and open for business. That is our number one export and a lot of people don't know, especially in light of us being a heavy agrarian state, but our number one export to the global market is aerospace goods," he said.

He also said Arkansas is well established in the industry, but it is not enough to just be satisfied, which is why the AAA is going to make its push for legislation and incentives next year.

"That will be a good launching point in the General Assembly during the next few years, the fruit of that labor will be improving the business environment for aerospace companies. We're doing that now and I think Arkansas is a great place for aerospace companies to grow in."

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