PINE BLUFF — Gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross each expressed a desire to improve the quality of the Arkansas workforce Wednesday but differed on how to do it.
The pair spoke separately to business, education and political leaders at a Delta Regional Authority conference about efforts to improve the number and quality of jobs available in the impoverished region.
Democratic candidate Ross said there is too little access to pre-kindergarten throughout Arkansas, not just in its impoverished eastern half.
"I think we need to start sooner and finish stronger" when educating Arkansas youth, Ross said during the event, the Reimagining the Delta Workforce seminar at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
Hutchinson, a Republican, targeted older students, saying two-year colleges needed to work with high schools to develop laborers.
"We can't wait 10 years to develop a skilled workforce," Hutchinson said. He said he also supported pre-kindergarten programs, but believed high school students should be able to enter a two-year college program and learn a trade.
He repeated a previous suggestion that training be developed regionally — in high-tourism areas, schools should offer hospitality classes. Industrial areas should train machinists and welders.
Ross said fewer than half of Arkansas 4-year-olds have access to pre-K programs that could boost their reading skills before a critical point in their education. Districts that do offer programs often have a waiting list.
Until fourth grade, he said, "you're learning to read. After fourth grade, you're reading to learn," Ross said.
A failure to read sufficiently by the fourth grade can be harmful for the rest of a child's life, he added.
Ross had previously unveiled an expanded pre-K plan. Hutchinson criticized the proposal last month, saying the Democrat was proposing a new program rather than fully funding one already in place.
Ross said his proposal would fully fund the current program, then offer it to all families with 4-year-olds. Attendance would not be mandatory.
Both top candidates in the governor's race are former congressmen with a long history of public service.
The Delta Regional Authority, which hosted the meeting, has called for merging programs that combine education and job skills and finding new ways to learn and improve living conditions in the region.
Annette Kline of Strong Manufacturing, a former member of the Southeast Arkansas (SEARK) college board of trustees, said that after years of telling children they need to have a college education, the truth is Arkansas could also use skilled workers, too.
"We need welders," she said.
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander said his school is seeking to merge with businesses and industries to produce a "highly skilled and professional workforce" that perhaps could draw job back to the region.
"We are preparing students for jobs in the 21st century," Alexander said. "That takes great care. It takes planning. It takes partners."
Delta counties often have the higher unemployment rates in the state, as many manufacturers have left the area over several decades.
Pine Bluff is the seat of Jefferson County, which in June had an unemployment rate of 9 percent. Nearby Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock, was at 6 percent. Washington County in northwest Arkansas had a rate of 4.8 percent.