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Workforce development and training efforts kicked into a higher gear in 2019 across Arkansas -- and those efforts are beginning to pay dividends as we reach the end of the year.

In the past two weeks, 21 newly trained workers graduated from programs that prepared them to step into advanced manufacturing jobs and work as utility linemen. The majority of them have already been offered jobs.

Efforts to expand workforce training programs in 2020 are already underway, with plans to spread advanced manufacturing classes to all corners of Arkansas.

A dozen graduates from the linemen academy at the University of Arkansas -- Pulaski Technical College already are on the job and beginning their careers as utility linemen with electric companies in Arkansas.

Students trained for 17 weeks in the classroom and completed skills training such as learning to climb poles to become apprentice linemen. The program is a collaboration between Pulaski Tech and the Arkansas Energy Workforce Consortium, an Entergy-led coalition formed to prepare the next generation of linemen to enter the workforce and provide immediate support in the high-demand field.

Plans for the next cohort are underway. Learn more and apply at https://uaptc.edu/powerline.

Likewise, nine students graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith in a program sponsored by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. The students are trained for entry-level jobs in advanced manufacturing.

The Future Fit program began with a pilot class in Fort Smith and will expand to more than 10 Arkansas schools in 2020.

The nine graduates were previously unemployed or under-employed. They completed a 96-hour production operator/assembler program over three months. Four of these students have already accepted positions at manufacturing companies in the Fort Smith area.

Future Fit is an initiative developed by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission in collaboration with manufacturing industry executives, front-line plant workers and educators. The Arkansas commission donated about $60,000 in equipment to begin the effort in Fort Smith.

BLOWING IN THE WIND

Solar energy brightened the Arkansas landscape this year and captured the spotlight as a growing alternative energy source.

And another form of alternative energy seems to have the wind at its back.

Southwestern Electric Power Co. will rely on its connection to some of the nation's best wind resources to provide electricity to its Arkansas customers on the Louisiana and Texas borders.

SWEPCO has a request pending at the Arkansas Public Service Commission to add 810 megawatts of wind energy through the purchase of three new facilities in Oklahoma. The utility expects a commission ruling in the coming year.

The utility, which serves nearly 120,000 customers in our state, estimates the new wind project will save Arkansas customers an estimated $413 million over the 30-year life of the facilities. SWEPCO projects the added wind resources will bring renewable energy to 21% of its energy mix, working toward a long-term goal of 36% renewable energy, including future additions of wind and solar

New wind resources will provide enough energy to power 200,000 homes.

"Along with the environmental benefits, this additional wind energy will save customers money for years to come, helping families, businesses and the local economy," Malcolm Smoak, SWEPCO president and chief operating officer, said in a statement.

SWEPCO is pursuing its proposal to acquire three Oklahoma wind generation facilities in conjunction with its sister company, Public Service of Oklahoma.

Energy's future just might be blowing in the wind.

HONORING WOMEN IN INDUSTRY

The Communications Group of Little Rock is beginning a new program to honor women across multiple industries.

The marketing firm's Women in Industry program, dubbed WIN, recognizes women for their leadership roles in business.

Inductees of the 2019 inaugural WIN class include: Renee Thrash, partner in River Valley Farms and co-owner of Thrash Irrigation & Supply; Polly Rhuland, chief executive officer of United Soybean Board; Cynthia Edwards, Arkansas deputy secretary of agriculture; Donette Spann, promotions director at Arkansas Beef Council; Jenna Martin, co-partner at Martin Farms; and Jennifer Barbara Cook, Arkansas FFA Foundation director.

WIN candidates are selected through an open nomination process. Nominations are currently being accepted; go to comgroup.com for more information.

BEST IN THE SOUTH

Money has named Little Rock's Bank OZK "Best Bank in the South" in its annual rankings.

The personal finance brand and website, formerly published as Money magazine, ranked the nation's best banks in eight regions. Winners were chosen based on a combination of convenience, quality checking- and savings-account options, competitive ATM fees and customer service based on J.D. Power's 2019 customer satisfaction study.

National recognition is not new for Bank OZK. It has been named the top-performing bank in the country in its asset size category thirteen times over eight consecutive years by national organizations including Bank Director magazine, ABA Banking Journal and S&P Global Market Intelligence. Additionally, Forbes named Bank OZK to its world's best banks list in 2019.

SundayMonday Business on 12/29/2019

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