ByLyn E. Haralson
With a population of just over 2.7 million residents, Arkansas has been known as an agricultural state. In recent years, however, Arkansas has been successful in achieving a more favorable balance of industrial and agricultural production. Today, production in Arkansas includes finished items such as televisions, clothing, furniture, prepared foods, chemicals, aircraft components, communications equipment, boats, electric motors, machine tools, and pulp and paper products. Unfortunately, it is the state’s manufacturing sector that has been hit the hardest by the current financial crisis, resulting in significant increases in unemployment.
Although the crisis has meant the number of people seeking unemployment benefits and retraining has increased, the state has not had to significantly alter its strategies, said Artee Williams, director of the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services. Instead, the department stays focused on a comprehensive economic development plan that includes building a workforce with skills needed by established industries in the state and that will attract new industries.
Officials hope to accomplish this through the Arkansas Works initiative, a collaboration of educators and employers from across Arkansas who are working to integrate education and economic development.
One educational organization’s effort to match job skills with businesses needs is headed by Dr. Ed Franklin, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges. Franklin said two-year colleges are working on regional strategies that focus a region’s resources on industry sectors. Sector strategies build partnerships of employers, training providers, community organizations and other key stakeholders around specific industries to address their workforce needs and the needs of workers. In a 2003 study, the Aspen Institute found that workers in sector-based programs saw a 38 percent increase in their median personal income one year after training, followed by an additional 20 percent gain after two years. Other evaluations found employers reporting a 41 percent reduction in turnover and a 19 percent reduction in rework, which translates into significant cost savings.
Franklin is working to expand regional sector strategies across the state through a two-year college networks initiative. He has asked the two-year colleges to show him world-class workforce development programs that can be leveraged for economic development.
Meanwhile, state-level policies are in place to help unemployed workers obtain federal dollars for training in skills needed for high-wage, high-demand jobs. Funding may be available to these workers for up to two years under the department's programs, Williams said.
The state also offers a free pre-employment assessment program that assures job seekers have skills in reading, locating information and applied mathematics. Certificates valid for five years are issued to job seekers who successfully complete the assessments. Since January 2008, more than 17,000 certificates have been issued and more than 2,000 Arkansas employers have hired job seekers who have the certificates.
Another example of progress is the Career Pathways Initiative implemented in 2005. It provides up to two years of education or training for low-income adults at a state-supported community college. Participants receive funds for tuition, books, fees and related expenses in addition to child care and transportation assistance. Caseworkers employed by the college assist the students through mentoring, tutoring and coaching, which has proven to be a factor in the successful graduation rate for these students. Students are prepared through a course of study for high-wage, high-demand jobs and receive job placement assistance.
The Natural State, as Arkansas is called, is also an active participant in “green” jobs initiatives and has recruited major employers in the wind turbine industry. Even though the state does not have the wind capacity to use the technology, it is located between states that do and could provide workers for jobs. In fact, officials anticipate using a $4.8 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to train up to 2,000 workers across the state for businesses offering “green” jobs.