Arkansas is piloting a workforce development initiative in Fort Smith that state economic development officials hope will begin building a steady stream of entry-level workers to meet the needs of manufacturers across Arkansas.
The Future Fit initiative was developed by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in collaboration with manufacturing industry executives, front-line plant workers and educators. After a 12-week trial, the commission plans to spread the program to multiple career-training centers and community colleges to help fill high-demand manufacturing jobs.
Future Fit began Sept. 24 with 11 trainees at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. The program includes collaboration with manufacturers to build customized training programs.
Aging baby boomers are retiring, creating a tremendous loss of institutional workplace knowledge, and businesses are struggling to find skilled talent with the ability to operate the digital machinery that is required in modern-day manufacturing plants. Future Fit is designed to build the workforce of the future by identifying and training individuals for well-paying jobs that could lead to long-term careers in Arkansas.
"Our top priority at AEDC is to take care of existing companies operating in Arkansas and to make sure that they're successful," said Clint O'Neal, executive vice president of global business at the commission.
"We're finding that the No. 1 priority, the thing that keeps plant managers and CEOs up at night, is workforce development," he said. "That's the No. 1 need of Arkansas companies."
Commission officials conducted more than 2,000 face-to-face meetings with manufacturing companies to assess their job-training and employment needs. Future Fit was built as a response to the concerns raised by industry executives, who outlined the skills that are needed to work in production facilities.
A recent study by the national Manufacturing Institute showed that 80% of manufacturers in the United States report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled production positions. The Manufacturing Institute also projected that over the next decade, at least 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will be open because of the retirement of baby boomers and economic growth trends.
In Arkansas, the commission estimates there are currently at least 11,500 manufacturing jobs available.
"The needs of industry today are urgent -- and they're centered around workforce development," said Steve Sparks, director of the existing business resource division at the Arkansas commission.
"There are highly skilled and well-paying jobs that are available at nearly every manufacturer in the state," he said. "But young kids either aren't aware of them or don't have any understanding of what a manufacturing job looks like today."
Future Fit's pilot program is free to students. And the Arkansas commission is donating about $60,000 in training equipment, requiring a two-year commitment from the institution in return.
The majority of the 11 trainees in the current class range from ages 18 to 30. They go to school three hours a night for three nights a week. At graduation, they could have a job waiting.
"I expect all of those students to be hired before they leave the program," Sparks said. "The companies that worked with us to set up this process all have jobs that are open and I expect these folks to have offers right away."
Trainees in Fort Smith are either unemployed or underemployed, according to Kendall Ross, director of the center for business and professional development at the university.
"The majority of these folks are in some kind of crisis," Ross said. "They have a background that almost prevents them from being employable. Through this training, we're giving them an opportunity to prove their value to some organization."
AEDC plans to expand Future Fit, beginning in 2020, to community colleges across the state with industry-specific training for each region. UAFS plans to start another program in January and hopes to train at least 80 people a year, Ross said.
"Our goal is to create a turnkey program that we can take to other schools around the state and let them put it in place," Sparks said. "Ultimately what we hope to do with this program is move it into the high schools. We want to be able to identify people while they're in high school, rather than when they're out and train them up."
SundayMonday Business on 10/13/2019