FORT SMITH -- The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith plans to do what it can to help workers find employment and educational opportunities as a local plant prepares to shutter its doors.
The university is collaborating with multiple local partners to offer a range of services to the employees of the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Van Buren, according to a news release.
Tyson Foods confirmed March 14 it would close the plant, which employs 969 workers, May 12. Tyson will also close a plant in Glen Allen, Va., with 692 workers, with the company stating it would offer displaced employees jobs at its other facilities as it shifts production to better use its processing capacity.
Kendall Ross, executive director of the UAFS Center for Economic Development, cited a 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., estimating for every 100 direct jobs lost in a nondurable goods manufacturing facility, about 500 total indirect jobs are also affected. The report states indirect jobs include supplier jobs and jobs supported by the re-spending of income from direct and supplier jobs, along with public-sector jobs supported by tax revenue.
"Consequently, we're not just talking about 969 jobs," Ross said. "We are looking more like 4,000-6,000 jobs that are going to be affected in some way or another."
Bill Sabo, regional director for the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center at UAFS, noted the loss of the local Tyson plant will affect "a large swath" of the River Valley area, not just Van Buren.
Ross said UAFS is thinking in terms of how to help those affected find jobs, as well as "reskill or upskill" themselves -- helping them find new skills that might pave the way for them to get a job at other manufacturing facilities outside of food processing, including some in the area. The university is also looking at helping those who may want to continue their education.
Ross said the Center for Economic Development is working closely with the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, as well as the Alma Area Chamber of Commerce. It plans to provide non-credit training classes for Tyson workers ready to find employment elsewhere. The classes will entail training in soft skills, such as time management, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution, along with technical skills such as blueprint reading and power tool safety.
The skills training for Tyson workers will be provided with grant money available through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, according to Ross. The UAFS Foundation, an independent organization that raises and oversees money donated to UAFS, will be able to supplement any training the center needs.
Julie Murray, president and chief executive officer of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, said UAFS is one of several community partners the chamber is working with to help the employees who are going to be displaced when the Tyson plant closes. She said the training the university is able to offer makes it an important player in these efforts.
"UAFS can respond to just about any training need you could dream up, so they're critical," Murray said.
The Center for Economic Development provides training in English and Spanish, according to the UAFS news release. Beam said other services it will facilitate through the university include resume-building and job placement assistance.
Sabo said the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center would like to be able to help any Tyson employees interested in starting their own small business free of charge.
"The center offers comprehensive assessments, business planning and lending strategy, including connections with microlenders which could be more flexible with first-time entrepreneurs than traditional lenders," the news release states. The center is also equipped to consult in English and Spanish.
Sabo noted the development center doesn't loan money or give either legal and tax advice. He said the center has two programs coming up Tyson workers are welcome to attend: a women's business panel at 5:30 p.m. April 13 and a Hispanic business panel at 5:30 p.m. April 20. Both will be held at the center at the Bakery District at 70 S. Seventh St. and will provide workers an opportunity to speak with other entrepreneurs and get ideas.
Tina Root, director of UAFS' Adult Degree Completion Program, said her program can help students who already have, or potentially have, some credits and would like to finish a bachelor's degree from their initial interest in the program all the way through graduation.
The program uses two bachelor's degree programs, general studies and organizational leadership, and can provide online classes for students who are currently working or looking for a job.
"We also help them portfolio life learning," Root said. "If they currently, for example, have been writing in the workplace, that is a course that we would help them do a portfolio for and present to an assessment committee with the skills necessary to earn credit based on a portfolio process rather than taking the course, saving time and money for those students."
Root said the program helps students prepare for College Level Examination Program and DSST Subject Standardized testing to obtain credit for nontraditional coursework as well, among other things.
University admissions advisers, including Spanish-speaking staff, are also set to attend job, education and placement fairs at the Tyson plant, according to the news release. Outside the Adult Degree Completion program, people who have to keep working may be eligible to take part in UAFS evening and online courses.
Other organizations with whom UAFS is working to help Tyson employees include Van Buren, Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Peak Innovation Center and Governor's Workforce Cabinet, the news release states. Beam said the university is also collaborating with the Van Buren and Fort Smith school districts.
Van Buren career fair
The Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and Crawford County Adult Education Center will co-host a career fair targeted at the workers of the Tyson Foods poultry plant in Van Buren at 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 29 at Van Buren High School.
Source: Julie Murray, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce