When we talk about ways to foster long-term economic growth, ensuring that Arkansans are prepared for well-paying jobs must be among our top concerns. Career and technical schools offer specialized training that prepares students for careers in skilled trades, applied sciences and more. We are blessed to have a number of exceptional programs in Arkansas that put students on the path to future success.

This is important because almost a quarter of our state’s skilled professionals are at or near retirement age. Arkansas’s employers need talented workers who are prepared to fill the surge of expected vacancies, as well as those to step into positions created by the many new employers choosing to call the Natural State home.

One of Arkansas’s leading career and technical colleges, the University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College (UA-PTC), recently received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The award will be used to the launch the first phase of its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Park Project on the college’s main campus in North Little Rock.

According to UA-PTC officials, the school’s existing laboratory spaces can no longer serve the rapidly-growing demand for STEM classes, forcing the school to turn away 200-300 students per semester. The STEM Park Project will allow the college to accommodate more students and help them find well-paying jobs after graduation through its partnership with STEM-related industries in Arkansas.

The mission of the STEM Park Project is important as data from the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services shows there is a current demand for nearly 3,300 skilled workers in STEM fields in the state. That need is made more apparent by the fact that the existing workforce in STEM-related positions is already facing a shortfall of over 500 employees.

Along with our career and technical colleges, the Associated Industries of Arkansas Foundation’s “Be Pro, Be Proud” initiative is another ongoing effort to address that shortfall. The goal of the program is to introduce Arkansans to the high-wage, stable careers in order to meet the need of employers requiring specialized training for highly skilled jobs that don’t requires a four-year degree. The variety of career paths highlighted by the “Be Pro, Be Proud” initiative include tool and die making, computer programming, construction, robotics and many more.

Among other things, the “Be Pro, Be Proud” program brings its mobile workshop to cities and towns across the state to offer high schoolers exposure to careers in trade and a hands-on introduction to the technology at use in these professions. I’ve had a chance to see the mobile workshop up close on a couple occasions, most recently this past summer, and can attest to the value it provides in terms of offering a unique insight for students considering alternatives to the traditional four-year university route. This outreach will help young Arkansans realize that you don’t need an undergraduate degree to get ahead in life.  

Programs like “Be Pro, Be Proud” and institutions like UA-PTC will help Arkansas industries fill the current – and projected – employment void and attract additional STEM-related jobs to the state. We must continue to support programs that build a pipeline to fill in-demand jobs.