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Arkansas should take greater strides in promoting initiatives that encourage lifelong learning programs to prepare the state's workers for the future economy, a national workforce development specialist told business leaders Wednesday.

The state needs a stronger and more united link between education and training that follows residents from childhood through the end of a work career, said Ted Abernathy, who completed a yearlong study on workforce development for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

The study was released Wednesday in conjunction with the chamber's annual meeting in Little Rock, where Abernathy was the keynote speaker. "The old model of a person's education ending in your adulthood no longer works, either for the individual or to meet the rapidly evolving workplace needs," the study said.

The 38-page report was compiled by Abernathy's company, Economic Leadership. The report noted that the majority of business leaders in Arkansas are having trouble finding skilled workers to fill jobs. "We're talking about a supply-demand imbalance," Abernathy told more than 600 business leaders gathered at the luncheon.

Abernathy's research included surveying more than 420 chamber members: 64% said that businesses are having trouble finding candidates with the technical skills required to be successful on the job, and an equal number said that companies are having trouble finding people with vital soft skills such as communications, showing up on time and being a cooperative team member.

"Arkansas is also experiencing workforce gaps in technical skills and soft skills, an aging workforce, and very uneven job growth across the state," the report said. Abernathy noted that the majority of executives surveyed said they were happier with business taxes and health care costs -- two constant complaints from business leaders -- than they were with the skilled labor force.

Skilled labor is vital to economic growth because it is the primary factor influencing business expansion and location decisions, according to Abernathy.

Chamber President Randy Zook noted the report will be used to motivate business leaders and policymakers to action. "It takes a lot to move the state," Zook said. "The good news is we're making progress."

Arkansas is increasing career awareness at all education levels and spreading access to career training opportunities, Zook said. "There are dozens of businesses across the state that are doing meaningful things," Zook said.

The state has many assets, including career training programs and education initiatives that promote technology careers, that it can capitalize on going forward, the report said.

In addition, the report found that 89% of those surveyed feel positive about the economy. Unemployment remains at historic lows and the national economy has enjoyed 109 consecutive months of private-sector job expansion.

Becoming complacent, however, poses a potential danger. "Arkansas cannot afford to be lulled into complacency by its current strong economic performance," the report said. "Emerging threats such as the quantity and quality of the workforce, low labor force participation, wide skills gaps, lagging education attainment, and uneven economic conditions around the state could choke off economic prosperity unless business and government leaders address them aggressively."

Building greater career awareness -- among both parents and students -- should begin early in the education process, according to the study, which is titled "Strategies for Lifelong Learning & Preparation for Work."

Career awareness, the report said, was described as "abysmal" and "nonexistent" by the executives who were surveyed. And 61% reported there's a mismatch between work skills that are needed and what's taught from kindergarten through high school graduation.

There needs to be "a stronger continuum of education and training in Arkansas, from childhood through the end of a career," the report noted.

Students need to have more access to apprenticeships, career days and other programs that provide an opportunity to learn about jobs that best fit their skills. "Anything we can do to help young people see what work is like, what work involves, is helpful," Abernathy said.

Career awareness will help students and young workers find the right career track. "We need to get rid of the stigma that a four-year degree is the only path," Abernathy said.

Also at the meeting, the chamber announced a partnership with Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care and Walmart to respond to opioid addiction.

The organizations have formed a coalition, called Together Arkansas, to offer online courses and programs that promote best practices to help employers battle opioid addiction among employees and potential employees. Opioid addiction caused $33.5 billion in lost productivity in Arkansas from 1999-2015, the chamber said Wednesday.

Business on 11/07/2019

Print Headline: Lifelong learning urged at chamber

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