The impact of South Arkansas Community College's $3.9-million portion of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant announced last week by the U.S. Department of Labor will be far-reaching, according to officials with the school.
The South West Arkansas Community College Consortium, made up of seven community colleges including SouthArk, learned that it would receive funding of nearly $8.5 million over the next three years. SouthArk will have the lead role in administering the grant for the consortium.
The grant proposal noted that southwest Arkansas is among the poorest regions of the country, where opportunities for workforce training are in great need.
"This proposal seeks to ignite the untapped potential of the region's employers to widen postsecondary access channels and drive even more postsecondary educational attainment," the proposal stated.
It went on to say that with the rise of more technology-driven occupations, a "skill gap" has developed in the manufacturing sector, preventing many long-time workers from transitioning into these because yesterday's training is no longer adequate. The grant is intended to help close that gap through a focus on science, technology, engineering and math fields.
It will fund equipment, supplies, professional training and consultation, and about 10 new positions at SouthArk alone. As the lead college, SouthArk will be responsible for establishing the overall procedures for grant implementation, defining outcomes, assuring fiscal accountability and establishing an evaluation and reporting system.
The local college will update and expand its welding program, further enhance its process technology program and add a mechatronics program. Mechatronics combines the technologies of electronics and mechanical engineering.
Instruction offered will range from non-credit industry-specific training to associate's-degree programs. The associate's degree in process technology also will transfer into a bachelor's-degree program at Southern Arkansas University.
"This [grant] is good news for the college, students' wanting to study manufacturing and our local manufacturing companies," SouthArk technical education dean Jim Roomsburg said. "This gets the college into STEM education in a major way."
Following one of the consortium's strategic missions, the grant is designed to re-imagine community-college relationships with area industries, creating partnerships that allow both entities to succeed for the ultimate benefit of the local workforce. That means more and better educational opportunities for students in cutting-edge technology fields, and better-trained and more highly-skilled employees, according to college administrators.
The consortium's members worked closely with area industries to discover precisely what education and skills that their employees need in today's manufacturing world, and will need in tomorrow's. That will be an ongoing task throughout the grant's lifetime, according to SouthArk president Dr. Barbara Jones.
"SouthArk will work with employers in south Arkansas to revise, improve, or develop curriculum to prepare graduates," Jones said.
The timing of the grant was outstanding, Jones said, as there will be a need for about 700 new manufacturing-industry workers in the area in the coming years, according to figures provided by the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce.
"The receipt of these funds is timely with the pending expansion of El Dorado Chemical, Clean Harbors and other area industries; impending retirements; and the challenge of recruiting a skilled workforce to our rural region," she said. "These are high-skill, high-demand and high-wage positions that are much needed by the industries."
The intent also is to be flexible in the way that instruction is delivered, as previous methods often do not meet the needs of the current landscape. For example, a major priority is to award college credit for previous work experience, as an encouragement to current workers to complete certifications and degrees via a faster track.
"For South Arkansas Community College, this grant will provide the much-needed resources to train a skilled workforce for the chemical, petroleum and pulp and paper industries in our region," Jones said. "We are so grateful for this opportunity and look forward to working with the employers, stakeholders and educational institutions in our region to build a stronger workforce for Arkansas."
College administrators are expecting about 370 new students a year in the grant-funded programs across the seven colleges in the consortium. The other colleges are Southern Arkansas University Tech in East Camden, the University of Arkansas Community College-Hope, Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas in DeQueen, Rich Mountain Community College in Mena, College of the Ouachitas in Malvern and National Park Community College in Hot Springs.