By Christina Wilkerson
The Razorback Reporter
Robin Eason was a technical writer and single mother working in the corporate sector, where she saw layoffs and mergers. After witnessing the fickle nature of business, Eason decided she needed a stable career that would provide for her family in the midst of an unpredictable economy.
“I started looking at the business sector, and I thought, ‘Every time I work for a business, there’s a big chance that they’re going to close down, they’re going to merge, they’re going to sell. I need to find a field that’s stable, and of course, people are always going to get sick, people are always going to have to have surgery.’ So that’s when I decided to go medical, because I was a single parent at the time and I wanted to have something sure and stable for my family,” said Eason, who is director of surgical technology at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.
She was navigating a work force in which employees needed to keep a close eye on the constantly changing labor market. Many workers still see the economy as a ubiquitous storm cloud from which misfortune and hardship flows. The 2007 Great Recession was an economic event devastating enough to rival the 1930s Great Depression.
The post-recession economy is regaining strength. Jobless claims fell to the lowest they have been since June 2000, according to an Oct. 11 U.S. Department of Labor news release. The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a record number of job openings in August. Most economists consider this a sign of health.
The U.S. payroll to population rate went from 44.5 percent in May to 45 percent in June, the highest rate recorded since January 2010, according to a Gallup poll that measured the percentage of people working for a full-time employer. This counts adults 18 and older, and does not include the self-employed, the unemployed, those out of the workforce, or those who work fewer than 30 hours a week.
Eason graduated from NTI in 2002 and went straight into the work force as a surgical technician for five years. “But now I’m teaching,” she said.
Health, Education Top Vocations
As it turned out, Eason began to work in the two most promising occupations in Northwest Arkansas.
Health care is the top growth occupation in Northwest Arkansas, according to the Northwest Arkansas Local Workforce Investment Board Plan for 2012-2016, and educational services rank second.
“Health care in particular has grown during the recession, before the recession and since the recession,” said Kathy Deck, director of UA’s Sam M. Walton College of Business Center for Business and Economic Research. “We really see more and more resources put into that sector.”
Most of the jobs at the top of the growth list require some technical training. Businesses report demand for new hires who are proficient in technical fields.
“We continue to hear from all of our employers, that they do not have enough technically trained workers ready to come in, to service those machineries that help make manufacturing so efficient, to weld, to do skilled trades,” Deck said. “Over and over again we hear that there’s a shortage out there.”
Training vs. Degree
Despite industry demands for technical skills, people who graduate with four-year degrees often face lower unemployment rates and a higher average wage, Deck said.
A Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends report in February said that millennials who have bachelor’s degrees earned an average of $17,500 a year more than their counterparts who had high school diplomas. When compared with other generations, the wage gap between a bachelor’s degree and other education routes becomes an open chasm in the millennial generation.
“That doesn’t mean that we don’t have particular need in particular places,” Deck said.
Making training available for those who do not go the four-year route has become the biggest roadblock in producing these workers, she said.
“We have some challenges in putting enough folks out there right now, which means there should be opportunity,” Deck said.
The supply-and-demand gap between jobs and skilled workers is gaining the attention of government officials and celebrities who are using their influence to address the issue.
Vice President Joe Biden announced $450 million in job-training grants in September. The money went to community colleges across the nation, including the Mid-South Community College in West Memphis, Arkansas. The goal is to help colleges foster a new generation of skilled workers in areas such as technology, health care, energy and advanced manufacturing, according to the Labor Department.
Mike Rowe, who is host of the reality television shows “Dirty Jobs” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” launched “Profoundly Disconnected,” a campaign in conjunction with his scholarship foundation “Mike Rowe Works.” Last year Rowe awarded $250,000 in scholarships that average $2,500 each for graduating high school students who pursue skilled-trade careers, according to his website.
Rowe has become the poster child for skilled trades as he continues to stress the importance of technical training and filling the thousands of jobs that “no one seems to want.” These are jobs that do not require four-year degrees, according to Profoundly Disconnected. They also are jobs for which training does not generate mountains of student loan debt.
The national outstanding student loan debt is the second only to home mortgages as the largest form of consumer debt in the U.S., according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Student debt reached the trillion-dollar mark in 2011. The average undergraduate indebtedness at the University of Arkansas was $27,095, according to the 2012-2013 Enrollment Services Annual Report.
Miss Arkansas 2015 Ashton Campbell is another celebrity proponent for technical training. Her platform is “Aim Higher — Setting Our Sites on Higher Education.” Unlike other higher education campaigns, Campbell also encourages Arkansas elementary and high school students to consider technical training and vocational education.
NTI and Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute in Forrest City are the two technical institutes in Arkansas training people to meet the demand for skilled trade jobs.
NWA Job Market Cools
The national unemployment rate is 5.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate in Northwest Arkansas was 4.9 in August, according to Deck’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
“The Northwest Arkansas economy has really outperformed almost all of its competitor regions, the state and the nation, and the reason that it has done so well is because of the industrial mix that we have here,” Deck said.
“There’s nowhere else in the nation that has as many corporate headquarters jobs in such a concentration as we do here. We have Wal-Mart, we have all of Wal-Mart suppliers, we have Tyson, we have J.B. Hunt, we have the University of Arkansas, these major employers really do give the region an industry mix that allows us to do well during good times and recessions as well.”
Though the regional economy typically is not affected by national trends, it has been swept onto the bandwagon this year. The number of those participating in the labor force is dropping across the country. The labor force is simply “the number of people who are employed, plus the number of people who are actively looking for jobs,” Deck said.
“The labor force for, really, the first time in recent memory, is lower in 2014 than it was in 2013,” Deck said. “The labor force has been growing much faster than the rate of the nation, or of the state, for decades here in Northwest Arkansas. This year is kind of an anomaly in what we’ve been experiencing.”
Full-time students, retirees, stay-at-home moms and those who have given up on job searching are among those who are not counted in the labor force.
There are a few ideas buzzing around as to why the labor force number has a negative sign in front of it for the first time in years. The most widely accepted is that the baby boomer generation is beginning to retire, leaving a gap in the labor force.
“What we’re seeing nationally, the baby boom generation is retiring. That’s putting downward pressure on the labor force,” Deck said. “We also see people staying in school longer.”
Exiting baby boomers will provide a new horizon of open jobs for the graduating millennials.
“The good news is, we have the baby boom generation retiring, but the millennial generation is actually bigger,” Deck said. “I suspect that the labor force will stop declining in short order, or at least level out as you have these competing effects going on.
“This is not a sudden phenomenon; we’ve known it would happen for 20 years,” Deck said. “The health of the overall economy will determine if the labor market can handle the transition.”