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Andrew Parker Combats “Skills Gap” With Be Pro, Be Proud

A contingent of state officials and business leaders met recently with U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta to discuss the Arkansas State Chamber’s Be Pro, Be Proud workforce initiative, and it is drawing interest from several states.

“The administration is very interested,” said state Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, who attended the meeting in Washington D.C. earlier this summer with the representatives from the state’s congressional delegation and the state chamber.

The purpose of the trip, English said, was not only to promote the program, but to see if federal funding might be available.

And while the initiative is just 18 months old, Andrew Parker, director of government affairs with the state chamber, said it has attracted interest from a number of states, including Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee.

READ MORE: Parker and others are making a difference in Arkansas

“The response has been overwhelming, this is what we need,” Parker said.

Be Pro, Be Proud was launched in March 2016 to address a growing “skills gap” between companies needing employees with specific skills sets, and the lack of properly trained people entering the workforce, Parker said.

The state chamber also learned during more than 30 meetings with business leaders across Arkansas that the jobs available, like diesel mechanics, plumbers and welders, are often not professions that college-bound students consider.

“We realized we needed to change the conversation,” Parker said. “These are not middle-skilled jobs, which they have been historically classified as. They are professional jobs.”

With early support from the Delta Regional Authority, Nucor Steel Arkansas and Bentonville-based Walmart, the initiative took hold. An informational website was developed along with what is described as a “mobile workshop” in a 44-foot trailer pulled by a Freightliner truck donated by Trucking Centers of Arkansas.

“The mobile workshop is the crown jewel of the effort,” Parker said. It contains videos detailing 12 skilled professions that are in demand in Arkansas and pay well. There is also a set of interactive videos detailing diesel mechanics, an area where students can use construction tools to test electricity, an electric welding simulator, as well as a hands-on exhibit dealing with plumbing.

The initiative has an annual budget of more than $200,000, said Parker, adding more than 25 companies across the state have invested in the project.

The mobile workshop has made more than 150 stops – logging more than 45,000 miles – at middle schools, high schools, two-year colleges, fairs and festivals, rural community events, job fairs and businesses. More than 15,000 people have visited the trailer.

Parker said the mobile workshop, manned by two people, has scheduled visits across the state through the end of the year.

The website is designed to educate prospective employees on the educational opportunities available to gain the needed skills. On the website, a person wanting to study welding or mechanics can find the closest program to them. And, the information they provide will be go directly that school, as well as to business leaders in that profession.

Parker said agreements with the two-year schools are being sought to better streamline the education programs.

The 12 in-demand professions touted by the initiative include: truck driver; diesel tech; welder; machinist; computer numerical control (CNC) operator; tool and die maker; computer programmer; computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) drafter; heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) tech; plumber; electrician and carpenter.

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