The Be Pro Be Proud initiative from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas rolls on — literally — in its quest to sharpen the Arkansas workforce blade.
Launched in 2016, the initiative promotes manufacturing and vocational careers as an alternative to traditional college. Almost 25 percent of the state’s skilled professionals are at retirement age or close to it, according to the chamber. The state needs the next generation to step in behind them.
“Our state’s workforce isn’t prepared to fill the positions our retiring workers are creating,” says Andrew Parker, the chamber’s director of governmental affairs. “By changing how Arkansans think about the job opportunities provided by skilled professions, we can inspire today’s youth and lead them, and our state, down the path to prosperity.”
With its iconic 44-foot-long, extendable tractor trailer that serves as a rolling workforce lab, Be Pro Be Proud tours Arkansas schools each fall and otherwise appears at industry conferences and events. In addition to offering skills challenges and providing resources on jobs and job training, the “Workforce Workshop” educates students on what they could be missing. In many cases, first-year skilled workers earn higher wages than college graduates, sometimes much higher.
The numbers don’t lie. An associate’s degree from Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville, for example, delivered a full-time average wage of $44,564 for the first year of employment, higher than bachelor’s degrees from the University of Arkansas ($40,745), the University of Central Arkansas ($35,626) and Arkansas State University ($35,615), according to 2017 data from the Arkansas Departments of Workforce Services and Higher Education.
Arkansas’ more lucrative skilled occupations currently in demand include electrical linemen, with an average starting salary of $69,960; computer programmers, $69,540; fiber optics technicians, $62,020; computer-aided design (CAD/CAM) drafters, $59,080 and carpenters, $56,250.
Arkansas isn’t the only state experiencing a skilled workforce gap. More than 82 percent of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage in skilled workers, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. In Arkansas, the state chamber estimates that roughly half (49 percent) of skilled workers are age 45 and older.
Enter the rolling Workforce Workshop. “The best opportunity to reach those who will make up the skilled workforce of the future is to bring the opportunity to them,” Parker says.