Arkansas is poised for a robust 2020, many business and industry leaders agree, but the state needs to better prepare its students to meet the demands of an evolving workplace once they enter the job market.
That was the consensus, anyway, from six leaders of industry and academia who spoke with Arkansas Money & Politics. We asked each of them one question: What does the Arkansas workforce look like in 2020?
Here’s what they had to say:
Director, Center for Business and Economic Research, Sam Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas
The single greatest challenge to our economic development efforts in Arkansas is the lack of adequate workforce development. Surely, we need more vocational skills training in our state, but it’s hard to be economically competitive in 2020 and beyond when we continue to have one of the lowest educational attainment rates in the country. The percent of Arkansans with a four-year college degree is significantly lower than the national average.
A high school diploma isn’t enough anymore, so in addition to investments in vocational training, we need to put in more effort to get Arkansans going to college and completing their degrees.
President and CEO
Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas
Arkansas is seeing a significant increase in efforts to better equip young people to enter the workforce prepared to compete and add value to earn attractive career opportunities. All across the state, schools, employers and state agencies are investing in better programming, more rigorous courses and current generation equipment and tools with which to learn. This effort is resulting in more and better job opportunities for Arkansans including many who are gaining new skills mid-career.
Chairman and CEO
Polyethylene Containers Inc., El Dorado
It looks like the workforce will continue to remain tight in 2020. The changes in corporate tax rates in 2017 allowed us to divert money from taxes to growth capital expenses which in turn allowed us to increase our manufacturing capacity in each of the following years.
We have grown our full-time workforce by 40 percent since 2016 and gone from five days a week to seven days of operations. Skilled workers are still in short supply, and I see wages continuing to rise. Our economic outlook remains strong for 2020.
Arkansas Northeastern College, Blytheville
The continued strength and growth of the state economy should cause the number of persons in the workforce to expand beyond present levels. Part of this growth will take the form of new or returning entrants to the workforce currently unemployed, including the long-term unemployed not counted by the traditional unemployment rate metrics. These individuals will benefit greatly from basic workplace readiness training delivered in a short-term format, both for adults and secondary students preparing to graduate high school.
Individuals currently underemployed will have better full-time employment prospects as well as opportunities to move into higher-paying jobs. Consequently, I would expect a ladder effect to occur whereby skilled members of the workforce will have the best prospects for advancement, lower-skilled workers who improve their skill sets also will advance up the ladder, and new or returning entrants to the workforce will fill jobs vacated by advancing members of the workforce. The overall shortage of labor should bring about an increase in wages, especially for mid- to high-skilled employees.
Center for Business and Professional Development, UA Fort Smith
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission cites a recent national study by the Manufacturing Institute indicating 80 percent of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled production positions. Consequently, workforce development in 2020 will see an increase in training for individuals interested in entry-level production or operator positions.
Students will need a combination of technical and safety training, along with the soft skills of workplace behavior and ethics. That will prove invaluable to them and their future employers. I’m confident you will see more involvement from non-credit and/or apprenticeship programs than perhaps we’ve seen in past years. Employers are looking for entry-level workers who have skills not only in technical applications, but leadership, communication, thinking and interpersonal skills. There will be a large push to help employers develop that workforce.
Southern Arkansas University Tech, Camden
Workforce development in Arkansas is forever changing, and the speed of the change has quickened. The new workforce for Arkansas will need to secure advanced career and technical education to best prepare for the newest high-tech and highly skilled opportunities. Community colleges are poised to address the changing needs with relevant career, technical education and workforce training.
All high schools and colleges need to better prepare and advise students in career exploration, introduce more students to the opportunities that await in a skilled career and technical profession if we plan to meet the future needs of workforce employment in Arkansas. The completion of at least a one-year certificate or two-year degree will provide Arkansas employers with an infrastructure toward a reliable and robust workforce for the future.