In the 1978 classic, Animal House, Bluto wore a sweatshirt that communicated a whole lot in one simple word: College.
The Deltas’ living mascot did college well in a metaphysical sort of way, of course, even if he didn’t excel in practical terms. (A grade point average of 0.0, after all.) But as the film’s epilogue reveals, the future Sen. Blutarsky rode off into the sunset anyway. We don’t know whether his seven years of pre-med studies ever led to a Faber degree, but Bluto, rest assured, turned out OK.
The metaphysical appeal of the college experience so aptly illuminated in Animal House continues to attract high school graduates, even as virtual higher education settles into vogue out of necessity. But a degree isn’t required to launch so-called “blue-collar” careers, many of them lucrative in states like Arkansas with a low cost of living where a dollar stretches further. And practicality often wins the day for those prospective college students not committed to a specific course of study or discouraged by the prospect of graduating with massive student loan debt.
Manufacturers and other employers in need of skilled laborers continue to mine the landscape for them. While the traditional college path remains essential for those planning to enter certain fields or those seeking a classical education, one Arkansas program is reaching students across the state by dangling an alluring carrot — alternate paths that can offer faster, debt-free routes to high-paying jobs.
Each spring and fall, the Be Pro Be Proud initiative sends its mobile workforce-development lab — a 44-foot-long, 1,078-square-foot-long, extendable tractor trailer — to schools, conventions and other events across the state. The workforce lab includes various real-life, industry simulators used to train employees. The simulators also give students a taste of what a job actually entails — what it likes to drive a forklift, operate robotic equipment or program precision cutting, for example. The program also provides numerous resources, including job listings and training opportunities, at BeProBeProud.org.
Be Pro Be Proud was launched in 2016 by Associated Industries of Arkansas (AIA), the nonprofit foundation of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, and its model has been adopted in South Carolina and Georgia. Through January, and despite a spring 2020 tour cut short by COVID-19 and strict guidelines limiting participation since, the program had reached 308 cities and towns in Arkansas over 586 tour stops. The mobile lab had hosted 101,197 visitors, and 21,273 students had indicated interest in learning more, according to Trey Lamberth, director of communications for Be Pro Be Proud.
With a widening generational skills gap, Be Pro Be Proud aims to help ensure there will be skilled laborers to take over for the ones approaching retirement age. The National Association of Manufacturers reports that roughly 83 percent of manufacturers have seen a moderate or serious shortage in skilled workers.
In Arkansas, the workforce is getting older. Roughly 49 percent of skilled workers in the state are age 45 or over, 18 percent falls between the ages of 55 and 64, and 33 percent of the skilled workforce is under the age of 45, Lamberth said.
Arkansas is attractive to many industries because of its business environment and the quality of its skilled workforce, and officials from the public and private realms want to keep it that way. Be Pro Be Proud is supported by private companies representing multiple industries in the state, from Nucor Steel to Galley Support Innovations, and receives state and federal funding as well.
“Our whole purpose is to show students a different pathway,” Lamberth said. “Rather than going into debt right away, a student could make $40,000 to $50,000 starting out as an apprentice. We want to look at what really drives career choices. We want to grow more skilled workers but also potentially build a new generation of business owners and entrepreneurs.”
He noted that a 19-year-old could apprentice as a high-voltage lineman, and in three to five years, earn $90,000 a year. The program also encourages entrepreneurship and promotes education at two-year vocational schools to complement training.
Michael Garner, president of Little Rock’s Phillips Commercial/Haas Automation, a division of Phillips Corp., needs workers to choose his company. He told Arkansas Money & Politics that he has 42 open positions to fill in 2021.
“It’s unfortunate we struggle to fill these roles,” he said.
Phillips employs 10 in Arkansas with a total workforce of roughly 160. It provides advanced manufacturing equipment such as CNC machines (motorized maneuverable tools and platforms), 3D printers and robots along with the expertise to apply these technologies to the manufacturing process.
Garner said Phillips currently has service technician positions open that start at $45,000 to $55,000 a year and within five years could pay between $70,000 and $80,000. Plus, these jobs come with perks — a company car, cellphone and laptop.
“Think about being a young family starting out, and your employer is providing you a vehicle for work, which means fewer car payments, less gas and insurance but still a way to work,” he said. “We just hired an intern that did a ride-along as a high school student with one of our technicians. He’s been out of school for over a year and wasn’t happy with his current job. As an intern, we hired him at $30,000 annually; upon successful completion of our six-month intern program, he’ll be hired as full time at $45,000. And once he receives his certified technician status, he’ll be increased to $50,000 annually.
“This should all happen within his first year at zero cost to him.”
Garner said college degrees aren’t required because they don’t deliver the learning that’s needed to do the job. For many, getting in the door requires just a clean driving record and background check.
Sample professions promoted by Be Pro Be Proud for which a college degree isn’t necessary include computer programmers, CAD/CAM drafters, commercial truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, linemen, tool and die makers, plumbers, electricians, HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) technicians, welders and fiber optics technicians.
AIA estimates that Arkansas computer programmers, for example, make an average annual salary of $69,540 with the top 10 percent of the industry making $102,040. The average median household income for Arkansas in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $48,952.
Be Pro Be Proud is full steam ahead — with COVID restrictions — in 2021, the spring tour having been launched Jan. 19 at Hamburg High School. It’ll wrap up May 7 in Fort Smith. In between, the tour will have hit towns like Danville, Mulberry, Mount Vernon and Fordyce — small, rural communities in which many students don’t have the option of pursuing a traditional college education.
Garner said his company is limited because its customers can’t grow and expand due to a shortage of skilled labor.
“It’s not uncommon for a customer to tell us they would love to buy more equipment, but they can’t find enough skilled people to run what they have,” he said. “Customers will actually turn down work because they are at capacity with their current employees.”
Sample annual salaries for skilled laborers in Arkansas
(average top 10 percent salary, average annual salary)
Commercial truck driver
Automation and robotics
Heavy equipment operator
Tool and die maker
(Top 10 percent only)
Fiber optics technician