Michael Garner understands the advantages of specialized, skilled labor. His company manufactures, sells and services advanced manufacturing equipment including robotics. Specialized, skilled labor is essential to his industry.
Garner serves on the board of directors for Be Pro Be Proud, the workforce development initiative launched in 2016 by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas.
AMP: How important is it to address the generational skills gap experienced in many industries?
Garner: It’s critical to our existence and the ability to have a growing economy. Having the ability to learn a skill or trade makes us less dependent on others — other countries or even other people. Think about having the skill to fix things around the house, whether it’s what you do as a career or just having a skill that makes you more versatile, it creates a more opportunity.
I always ask what we are going to do when no one is available to fix things. As long as there are consumers, there will be a need to repair, innovate or build.
AMP: Can initiatives in schools and programs like Be Pro Be Proud really help address a potential future shortage of skilled workers?
Garner: Given that we removed vocational learning from our schools in the early ’90s, we need awareness. We have a couple of generations that don’t realize how things are made or, more importantly, didn’t get exposure to a trade that they would have been passionate about.
Initiatives like Be Pro Be Proud are important to giving students a hands-on experience to things that in most cases they didn’t know existed. We need all students to know what options are available to them, and create a better opportunity to place them in a career that they love, rather than forcing them into a job just to earn income.
I also think it’s important to educators, parents and grandparents who might not realize how much technology has changed and just what great opportunities are available in industries such as advanced manufacturing.
AMP: In your experience, does it feel like the stigma attached to not attending a traditional, four-year college after high school is being lifted?
Garner: I think we have started to create more awareness, but I don’t think we’re close to solving this problem. I really think it’s more about providing equal opportunity for a career path and, most importantly, the level of income and quality of life a person wants.
I think we still have room for improving the understanding of what’s available and how can we make sure when students graduate high school that they have a career plan. That career plan could include internships, trade schools, associate degree programs or the traditional four-year degree. I think we could make students better prepared for growth and learning by having the opportunity to apply themselves and as a result, be a better student.
It would also allow them to better understand and evaluate the value and cost of their education. Our role in educating students should be to make them employable at many levels, and far too many students are graduating college with sizable debt and non-employable skills. If the stigma had been lifted, you wouldn’t be able to construct or convert learning spaces for technical or skill trades quick enough.