To help improve and expand the area’s industrial/manufacturing workforce, community and civic leaders are looking to the younger population.
The El Dorado Works Board is continuing its support of the effort with an approval of $3572 funding for a new event that will introduce ninth graders in Union County to the various manufacturing and industrial jobs that are available in South Arkansas.
On Sept. 11, board members voted in favor of a request from the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with South Arkansas Community College and local industries, to host Manufacturing Day.
Sherry Howard, SouthArk dean of workforce development and continuing education, explained that Manufacturing Day is a national, annual event that serves to educate and raise awareness about modern manufacturing and to inspire the next generation of workers to broaden the manufacturing talent pool and fill available positions.
The day is celebrated on Oct. 5.
Mike Dumas, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said not many young people in the area are aware of the industries that operate in South Arkansas, what those industries do, or the jobs and salaries that are available in those fields.
“What is a machinist? What is a dye chemist? They don’t really know, and we need to expose what we have to offer to young people, not after they’ve graduated, but in the ninth grade,” Dumas said.
Dumas and Brandon Barnette, economic development project manager for the chamber, said two Manufacturing Day events will be scheduled in El Dorado, one in the fall and the other in spring.
Barnette said ninth-graders from Union County schools will be invited to the El Dorado Conference Center for a general session, breakout sessions and a job fair in which they will be able to visit with representatives from area industries and pick up information about participating companies.
Students from West Side Christian and the Parkers Chapel, Smackover-Norphlet Junction City, and Strong school districts will attend the fall event, while the spring session will be dedicated to El Dorado students.
Barnette said students will be divided into groups of 10 - 15.
“We felt like we needed to keep it small in order to keep their attention,” Barnette said.
Dumas said the chamber will return in a few months with a funding request to cover the spring session.
El Dorado City Council member Billy Blann also urged organizers to reach out to ninth-graders who are homeschooled.
Local industries have long discussed the need to replenish the talent pool for workers, particularly with a significant number of older workers expected to retire in coming years.
They have also said that younger people do not often consider industry and manufacturing as a career path — especially one that pays well.
“They’ll at least get exposure to the possibilities. Today’s manufacturing is not like it was 30 years ago,” Howard said.
Robert Reynolds, chairman of the El Dorado Works Board, agreed, adding, “This is not your grandfather’s industry … It’s all about technology with robots, computers, and they’ve got to have technicians to operate and maintain those machines. There’s a lot of need there.”
SouthArk President Dr. Barbara Jones lauded the El Dorado Promise scholarship program, which pays tuition and mandatory fees for college-bound students who graduate from El Dorado High School.
Jones said the Promise can also help students pursue certificates and two-year college degrees that could lead to lucrative careers in manufacturing.
“Sometimes, they pay more than jobs that require bachelor’s degrees,” she said.
Jones shared a story about a local student that completed SouthArk’s chemical process program and not long after, he was making $75,000 per year, including overtime pay.
The chamber and industry leaders have long complained about the need for a qualified workforce with effective hard and soft job skills.
Over the years, the city has committed tax dollars to help expand SouthArk’s workforce development program.
With money from the former El Dorado Forward tax and the El Dorado Works tax — both of which are geared toward economic development and quality of life issues in El Dorado —, the city has purchased a HOT (hands-on training) unit and equipment for SouthArk’s process and industrial technology programs.
The equipment not only trains students, but also provides continuing education and training for incumbent employees.
Jones said industries from all around South Arkansas, North Louisiana, the U.S. and the globe — including Germany and Brazil — have utilized the HOT unit.
In the area of workforce development, Howard and Jones said SouthArk has partnered with several area industries — including El Dorado Chemical, LANXESS, Albermarle, Clean Harbors, Potlatch, Entergy, Conifex and others that will participate in Manufacturing Day — to assess needs, develop curriculum and provide training for employees and students.
The funding requested by the chamber will cover the cost of renting the conference center, color-safety T-shirts for students and lunch for representatives of participating industries.
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or by email at tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.