With the number of covid-19 cases declining and the number of vaccinations climbing, Arkansas businesses are hiring and anticipating a post-pandemic economic upturn.
At a Sherwood job fair Wednesday, dozens of Arkansas businesses sought to attract new workers, highlighting employment opportunities in a variety of fields.
Some of the available positions are at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field.
"I've got plenty of openings for anyone who wants to work, for part-time positions, and we start at a little over $11 an hour," said Henry Bradford, general manager for Envoy Air in Little Rock, a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Airlines Group.
Employees qualify for free or reduced-rate travel.
Envoy Air provides regional air services for American Airlines, using the American Eagle name.
"The people at the ticket counter? That's us. The people at the gate? That's us. The people in baggage service? That is us," he said.
At the start of the public health emergency, the number of passengers and flights dropped considerably, though they've since picked up.
"We used to have 18 flights a day. We went down to nine or 10, and now we're back up to 14 flights a day," Bradford said. Soon, there will be 17 flights a day, he added.
While covid-19 decimated air travel, it didn't hobble the grocery sector.
"We've had jobs available all the way through the pandemic, and our needs have been pretty consistent," said David Bowlan, store manager at Edwards Food Giant on Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock.
"Various positions" remain unfilled, Bowlan said. "Meat clerks. Meat cutters. Cashiers. Stockers ... courtesy clerks."
"It's difficult to find people," he said.
Bowlan, an Edwards Food Giant employee since 2009, says his company offers flexible hours, competitive pay, a positive work environment, and it's family owned.
Steve Edwards, the founder's grandson and a special projects manager, said work is plentiful.
"We have openings all over the place. We've got stores in Central Arkansas. We also have stores over in east Arkansas, in Harrisburg and in Marianna. We've got positions available at every store," he said.
"Since the pandemic started, people have been buying more groceries, so we've had to get more people to help keep stuff on the shelves," he said.
Unemployment in Arkansas stood at 4.5% in February, down from 10.2% in April 2020, according to the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., hosted the job fair. While targeting veterans, the event was open to everyone.
"The pandemic has been so tough on people seeking work," the lawmaker from Little Rock said. "We wanted to do something positive as spring broke and vaccines were going to say 'Let's get out and help people get out and make those connections to get back to work.'"
In order to find opportunities, "networking is key and networking was hurt by the pandemic," Hill said. "You cannot really break into an employment situation, in my view, over Zoom."
A recruiter for Envoy Air and a representative of Bass Pro Shop said this was the first job fair they had participated in since the start of the pandemic.
Other participants included Arkansas Pro Wash, Tokusen, Amazon, Simmons Bank, AT&T and the city of Sherwood, plus dozens of others.
Army recruiters distributed military-themed water bottles and cellphone pop socket grips. Bass Pro Shop gave away mugs and flashlights.
Participants were required to wear masks, and hand sanitizer was readily available.
In the parking lot, the Big Dawg's BBQ food truck competed with X-treme Tacos and Tamales for lunch-time customers.
Erykah Rice, a senior at Philander Smith College, said she appreciated the event.
"A lot of interesting jobs," she said.
Despite the recent economic downturn, she sounded upbeat about her job prospects.
"For social work, it's kind of easier because everybody always needs a social worker," she said.
Bill Howell, a veteran from Conway, said he wanted to see what opportunities were available.
The job recruiters were "more than informative," he said. "There are probably jobs around that are good jobs if people want them. They just have to hook up with the right one."