Representatives from Arkansas’ manufacturers and other state business leaders met with Gov. Mike Beebe and his workforce cabinet on Tuesday (May 27) for what was described as a “candid” forum on ways to improve jobs with existing industries.
The meeting was co-hosted by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas.
“This is more about opportunity than difficulties or challenges,” said Randy Zook, president & CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber/AIA, who moderated the forum. “This is a structural issue driven by the aging of the workforce, skills deficiencies and skills needs. Eighty percent of the companies across the country either need or have difficulty finding skilled people.”
According to Zook, more than 40 manufacturing interests were represented at the meeting. An informal show of hands indicated that there are thousands of unfilled jobs across Arkansas. According to the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, an estimated 86,700 Arkansans were unemployed as of April 2014.
Zook said the group outlined a number of reasons why unfilled positions exist. They included:
• An aging workforce;
• Unwillingness of qualified workers to take certain jobs;
• Lack of computer skills;
• A shortfall of training instructors in key areas;
• The need for training in trades like welding and plumbing; and
• Lack of work ethic.
Zook said he’s optimistic that the blunt discussion at the meeting would help advance the state’s effort to overhaul its workforce training.
Announced two months ago during the fiscal session, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission has been tasked with coordinating multiple state agencies, career education, and private sector employers with a revamped, streamlined process better suited to meet the needs of existing employers. Lawmakers and the Governor also agreed to restructure the flow of state money from programs into a stronger workforce development effort.
When asked if today’s meeting was more rhetoric or a step in implementing action, Zook said, “I think the Governor and workforce cabinet heard the message from a wide range of industries across the state. And they sensed the urgency of the issue.” He added that there are several changes “on the verge of happening” at the two-year college level in parts of the state.
Zook cited a consortium of schools in south Arkansas that have received an $8 million federal grant and are gearing up to address an expected workforce decline in process control operators due to baby boomers retiring. There are as many as 900 operators presently in the region in the chemical, oil and gas industries.
He also said drug use and abuse is another factor affecting job placement for many employers.
“That’s one element and a very big one, but it’s not the only thing,” Zook said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a drug problem, but they do have a skills deficit problem.”
Tuesday’s meeting was closed to the press, but chamber officials released several quotes from participants following the event.
• “There are 80,000 people drawing unemployment and we can’t find the skilled workers that we need,” said Stacy Gunderman of FutureFuel Chemical Company of Batesville. “Is there a bridge somewhere where we can get some of these people?”
• Patrick Schueck of Lexicon, Inc., a full-service steel fabricator, said the company’s workforce requirement is “a crisis, not a challenge. We can’t get welders or pipefitters in the doorway. We don’t have anybody promoting trades. When’s the last time you called a plumber? There is an absence of trades workers – don’t even mention maintenance mechanics. The state needs to be on a full-court press to promote the trades. We need to start in grades 6, 7 and 8. There are a lot of kids going to college who don’t need to go to college.”
• “Attracting kids is a key,” said Paul Rivera of Caterpillar Inc. in North Little Rock. “We brought in a group of eighth-graders from Horace Mann (Middle School) a few weeks ago.” Rivera said the students were extremely engaged and excited to see the Caterpillar motor grader manufacturing plant.
• Walter Burgess of Power Technology, Inc. of Little Rock said one of the major factors missing now from secondary education is shop class. “Students need that exposure. They need hands-on access to tools. They also need to know how to use multiple inputs to achieve solutions and be able to follow a multi-step process.”
• David Chilcote of General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, Inc. of Hampton said they have a two-fold problem – in-house training – with a huge need for radiographers – and the skillset of workers. “Radiography jobs pay between $40,000 and $80,000. We have to send people to Houston to get them trained.” Regarding the skillset issue, Chilcote said, “They don’t know how to show up and come to work,” citing the lack of a work ethic. “Most of the people we terminate in the first year of employment are due to absenteeism.”