The aging workforce makes no exception when it comes to manufacturing in Arkansas, an industry very much in need of an influx of younger workers.
Programs like Be Pro Be Proud from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce; Career Watch, a publication from the Arkansas Department of Commerce (ADC); Ready For Life, an initiative of Gov. Asa Hutchinson; and Future Fit from the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) are working to tackle this issue.
In 2020, there were 158,852 manufacturing jobs in Arkansas with an average annual salary of $61,605, according to the 2021 edition of Career Watch. Be Pro Be Proud tracks manufacturing jobs across the state and reports that employees near or at retirement age account for 23 percent of the state’s manufacturing jobs, with 83 percent of Arkansas manufacturers reporting serious shortages in skilled workers.
The initiative’s mission is to change how Arkansans think about manufacturing jobs, inspire the state’s youth and lead the “down the path to prosperity.” Lexicon Inc., a privately owned construction and fabrication company with 2,000 employees headquartered in Little Rock, is on board and can attest to the impact of an aging workforce.
“It has been very difficult to hire or even get anyone to apply for our craft positions in the fabrication divisions, new construction and maintenance,” Danna Gauntt, Lexicon’s vice president of human resources, said.
Despite the aging workforce, Gauntt said Lexicon has seen success in recruiting young workers from technical schools, with referrals being a big part of the process. In order to help fill the age gap, Gauntt said Lexicon is working to create a more positive work environment.
“We are trying to determine a better work-life balance, offering better benefits and starting a more comprehensive training program for supervisors and our craft workers,” she said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Arkansas manufacturing industry in 2020 accounted for:
• 634,500 workers between the ages 25 to 44;
• 631,700 workers between the ages 45 to 64;
• 94,000 workers between the ages of 20-24.
The median age was 44.4 years. Alisha Curtis, chief communications and legislative director for ADC, said this data underscores the need for programs and initiatives like Be Pro Be Proud and Future Fit.
“These programs help connect young people with trade-industry training earlier in their careers and work to bring a new generation of professionals to Arkansas’ skilled workforce,” she said.
According to Curtis, the most popular courses in the state’s trade and technical schools are, in no particular order: welding, autobody, HVAC, construction, carpentry, transportation (CDL), manufacturing, service, mechanical, maintenance, electrical and plumbing.
“Every individual is different and has a different set of skills and talents. Our goal is to provide opportunities, whether that’s traditional college, trade school or direct engagement in the workforce,” Curtis said. “Trade school, in particular, offers students reasonably priced training for high-demand skills, placing students on a path to high-wage stable careers.”
Trade schools offer students the ability to learn skill sets needed and stack credentials toward a certified degree within a shorter time frame than an traditional degree would require, Curtis added.
“There are very good-paying jobs in our industry for all crafts, some even have remote working capabilities,” Gauntt said.
The Ready For Life program, launched in January, currently is working with Walmart, Tyson, Sodexo, LaCroix Precision Optics, FedEx Freight and Pace Industries and is committed to supporting educators, businesses and agencies in Arkansas. It also serves as a job-placement and education resource.
Future Fit, spearheaded by AEDC, partnered with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for its pilot program. This program was created to accommodate high school graduates who aren’t looking to attend college, military veterans, the unemployed or underemployed and nonviolent offenders who have been released by law enforcement.
The Future Fit program’s goal is to place qualified individuals into well-paying jobs with participating companies throughout Arkansas. Participants complete a training program that prepares them for entry-level employment with these companies. The first course takes around 120 hours of combined hands-on and online training, and two courses are in the works for Future Fit.
While UAFS serves as the pilot site, AEDC is planning to expand the program to all regions of the state with region-specific training.
“Our state is committed to strengthening our workforce through programs like Future Fit and Ready For Life,” Curtis said. “Both Future Fit and Ready For Life partner with high schools, colleges and businesses to close industry gaps and build more seamless pathways from high school to trade school with full-time career opportunities.
“Already, we have seen these programs grow, as students in high school and college are becoming more aware of wealth opportunities that are available to them in trade industries.”