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Legislators visit UAFS robotics lab, hear about classes for employers

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

An Arkansas legislative committee heard directly from employers and educators at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Wednesday (Aug. 27) about how they are partnering to meet the region's employment needs in innovative ways.

Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, is co-chair of the General Assembly's Joint Performance Review Committee and said the meeting held at the Baldor Center on the UAFS campus was about bringing jobs to the entire region. Also attending the meeting were Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and Shane Broadway, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

"What it's all about is jobs and workforce service and changes that are going on. Everybody's going to have to be more efficient. One thing I've enjoyed about the idea of bringing it to Fort Smith, knowing some of the things from UAFS, they're doing more with less here than a lot of schools we see," Rice said.

Dr. Ken Warden, associate vice chancellor for workforce development at UAFS, said the partnerships the university has developed with local employers "drive our programs and curricula."

"You know, developing programs and stuff that do not result in employment is not what we want to. We have an obligation and responsibility to our graduates and their opportunities post-graduation. Working with the folks like those that spoke this morning and the other companies around the region to ensure that what we do as a university — whether short-term non-credit training all the way to a bachelor's degree — link to a job opportunity. And that's what we want to demonstrate today."

Jim Walcott, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based printing company Weldon, Williams and Lick, told the joint committee that a part of the reason his company has succeeded is a result of partnering with UAFS.

"WW&L being a test site for the latest digital press is not of use if WW&L does not have a capable staff willing and able to grow," he said. "UA Fort Smith has helped make that happen for us."

Walcott said the university had worked with the company to offer classes for his employees that would eventually lead to an associates degree with students only meeting on Monday evenings for a year. The training employees receive through the specialized program developed with UAFS allow them to get specialized training in a variety of areas from leadership to finance, growing beyond just being an individual who can push buttons on a press to employees who can lead.

"They (employees) did come to UA Fort Smith against their better wishes for a variety of reasons. They didn't think they were ready for college, didn't want to do it. But they began the classes and in fact, excelled. They're excellent leaders for us and we thank UA Fort Smith for that. We're happy (to have) UA Fort Smith here and willing to create the custom modules we need for us and for anybody else in the community. We appreciate the flexibility the legislature offers."

Judy McReynolds, president and CEO of Fort Smith-based ArcBest Corp., also spoke and said the university's degrees and classes were turning out graduates from truck drivers to marketing specialists who are meeting the needs of the growing company. The company this year announced the construction of a new corporate headquarters in Chaffee Crossing and the addition of 900 jobs in coming years.

"People said we're so excited you're doing that here but with the choices, why here? And I can honestly say that is because of the quality of the workforce that we're able to get in this area and that's in large part can be attributed to the students who are graduating from UA Fort Smith."

She said the "direct connection" between UAFS and ArcBest has allowed the company to "mold" some of the university's programs positioning students to take jobs at ArcBest right out of college.

Melissa Hanesworth, managing director at Pernod Ricard USA, pointed to the university's efforts to meet the needs of local employers such as the launch this fall of the university's robotics certificate program. She also pointed to UAFS bringing education and training to her employees instead of having to depend on those same employees making the effort of attending class on campus which she called "a strategic tool for our companies to continue to grow."

"Our supervisors did not have to come out and sit next to a 19-year-old and be nervous or sit in a three hour class they've never done or haven't done in many, many years. It was a 16-week on-site training class and they actually earned college credit for that course. For some it was their first, for some it was their first in a long time. And for some, it was not their last. They have chosen to continue their education and actually come out and start taking classes here."

UAFS Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran said the university's background as a community college has lead to today's emphasis on providing jobs and opportunities that feed the local economy. But he said in order for the university to meet its potential in meeting the needs of the community, additional funding could make a difference.

Adjusted for inflation, WestArk College would receive nearly $8 million more in funding than UAFS receives today, according to Dr. Elizabeth Underwood, executive director of government and community relations at the university.

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"The more fully funded we are, the better we are able to hire quality faculty, quality instructors and be able to … attract the best people and keep the best people," Dr. Beran added.

But Rice said UAFS's ability to do more with less, as well as the partnerships it has developed with local businesses, is a model he expects to see at more Arkansas colleges in years to come. Asked if it was something he was prepared to push through with legislation when he enters the Senate next year, Rice said he was not looking for mandates.

"You use the terms force and mandate that I don't like, but that's what these meetings are about are change and about what's got to come to be able to turn out a product in a student traditional or non-traditional (format) that is ready to go to work. And like they say, they can have people hired out from under here before they even graduate and make good money and make good taxpayers out of them. What we need to do is make sure and be smart about how we're doing it. It's coming whether you call it mandated or forced, schools are going to have to be more efficient."

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