FORT SMITH -- Local manufacturing leaders met at the Peak Innovation Center on Monday to discuss the future of manufacturing in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley and how the manufacturers can aid potential workers while they're still students.
Jason Green, human resources manager for ABB Motors and Mechanical and chairman of the Regional Workforce Development Board, said building student interest in manufacturing is important because the current workforce is getting older, skill sets are changing radically and low unemployment means there's also low labor and manufacturing growth.
"We developed a strategy, and that strategy is really simple," Green said. "Build a pipeline of talent from our current employers, future employers as well. Do it collaboratively in a very community-based approach. Do it by rethinking career and technical education."
Green said Peak is a great example of this strategy.
The new center, located at 5900 Painter Lane, opened to students in late March as a collaboration between the School District and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. It serves roughly 280 students from 22 school districts across Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties through the university's Western Arkansas Technical Center program.
The center houses courses for automation and robotics, computer integrated machining, electronics technology and industrial maintenance, emergency medical responders, medical office assistants, network engineering and unmanned aerial systems.
Stephanie Freeman, a career development facilitator at Peak, said the Fort Smith School District has created a K-12 model to help students know if they'd be interested in taking Peak courses in high school. She said the elementary schools focus on learning professional skills like communication, responsibility and organization.
All Arkansas schools are required to have a career development class, which is usually taken for a semester in eighth grade, Freeman said. She said the district realized it needed to do more, so it has some kind of career development for all middle school students: a nine-week career awareness course in sixth grade, a semester-long career exploration class in seventh grade and a yearlong career development class in eighth grade.
Fort Smith is also adding middle school STEM courses, including design and modeling and space and flight, she said.
"We are only in year two of putting all of those classes in place, so we don't know yet what our return on this investment is," she said. "I'm really excited about seeing what this is going to do for not just Peak, but all of our students, all of the programs that we have."
Amanda Seidenzahl, director of the Western Arkansas Technical Center, said they've piloted a yearlong youth apprenticeship program for students to give them a real look at what a manufacturing career would be like. She said it starts the summer before their senior year as a paid, 40-hour week with instructor training in the mornings and working with companies in the afternoons; then during the school year, they work 12 hours a week, based on their schedules.
"They have their nights off and weekends free to still be a high school student and participating but gaining this experience," Seidenzahl said. "Many of them have the opportunity to apply with the company as they exit."
Seidenzahl said about 25 students have gone through the program since it started four years ago. She noted while that's not a huge number, the apprenticeship is intentionally competitive.
Latisha Settlage, dean of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith College of Business and Industry, spoke about how Peak students are also earning college credit and can receive associate degrees before graduating high school. She said ABB has been a great partner, but the college wants to identify more partners in the area so it can provide the needed curriculum for students.
Green also led a panel discussion of Peak and university students working in manufacturing so attendees could hear about their experiences directly. He asked them what they plan to do, and how these various manufacturing opportunities have aided them.
Nadia Facio, a Peak student and apprentice for ABB Motors and Mechanical, said she's known since middle school she wants to work at ABB, and the apprenticeship has shown her specific roles she might want.
"It showed me that I think I really have the potential to learn and grow more, especially as a young individual," she said. "It teaches me what I can do."
Emma Smith, a Peak student in the electronics program, said she likes that the school helps students find their passions at a young age.
"That's what will set us out from employers, because we know that we love this job and will go in there every day and do our best, and not just whatever we get to find," she said.