Gov. Asa Hutchinson kicked off the first Arkansas Manufacturing Innovation Summit on Wednesday by saying that strengthening the nation’s manufacturing was a “national security” issue, and strongly advocating that former felons should be given an opportunity to re-enter the workforce after leaving prison.
The state’s 46th governor made his remarks after being introduced by Dr. Tim Atkinson, president of the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority, as “the jobs governor.”
“That puts a lot of pressure on (me), but it also gives me a lot of focus,” Hutchinson told the overflow roomful of manufacturing managers and executives gathered at the two-day summit held at the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock.
“But as the jobs governor, now that the (legislative) session is over, it gives me the great opportunity to get back to the job of doing what I think is a very important part of being governor – and that is getting on the phone and recruiting industry to the state of Arkansas,” he said.
In his enthusiastic speech to the business leaders, Hutchinson said although Arkansas’ manufacturing sector has run into difficult challenges over the last decade or so, now was the perfect time for Arkansas industry leaders to embrace innovation and take the lead in competing globally for better manufacturing jobs.
He then told a story of his recent conversation with an unnamed Arkansas employer who needed help from the state in upgrading his local manufacturing facility to run more efficiently, which also meant that jobs would be cut because of better productivity.
He said such decisions are difficult to make as governor, but warned that local and state economic developers should help those employers find ways to innovate and improve efficiencies or Arkansas would fall even farther behind in the global competition for manufacturing jobs.
“There is great opportunity for bringing manufacturing back to the United States, and Arkansas should be in a position to capture more than its fair share of manufacturing (jobs),” Hutchinson said. “The biggest mistake would be not willing to make that sacrifice. That will put us in the position of being like Detroit.”
Hutchinson also reiterated two of his key visions for helping improve the standard of living for Arkansas’ working class through recently-passed tax cuts by the 90th General Assembly and by modernizing the Arkansas workforce with better technical skills.
He said the “middle-class” tax cuts passed during the legislative session was essential for workers making between $21,000 and $75,000 a year. “That means something. You combine that $500 tax reduction with lower gas prices and many of our industries and retailers raising the level of pay – that means more expendable money for the average worker in the state of Arkansas.”
In something that has become a popular subject among manufacturing executives and industry leaders, Hutchinson spoke passionately about his goal of better aligning the state’s technical education programs with industry.
“What was out of line was that we had a lot of good work center programs, but they were not always aligned with industry effectively. And secondly, the state dollars were not flowing to the programs that work well,” the governor said. “The last legislative session, we aligned those programs with those priorities.”
Hutchinson also told the manufacturing leaders about legislation he was able to pass that could lead to 20% of Arkansas students eventually taking computer coding classes while in high school, a common refrain in his talks with the business and education community. He said that would put 6,000 computer coders each year into the Arkansas economy, preparing them better for study at one of the state’s four-year colleges or universities.
“I am not a fan of unfunded mandates,” the governor said jokingly, adding that the computer coding classes would be free to schools, “but if we reach that goal, that has the opportunity to change the economy of this state.”
Hutchinson said in May he would begin a “computer coding” tour to highlight the initiative at schools around Arkansas.
In closing, the governor told the group of more than 150 industry leaders that bringing back manufacturing lost to other countries is critical to the growth and future of Arkansas and the United States.
“We want to bring manufacturing back to the state of Arkansas, and keep it here and expand those opportunities. We realize it is a national security issue. We cannot be a service-driven industry in Arkansas and our nation exclusively,” said Hutchinson, former deputy director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
After his speech, the governor took a number of questions from the audience who enthusiastically embraced his appearance. One questioner asked the governor how he felt about the hiring of former felons back into the workforce.
He encouraged the roomful of company executives to go back and look at their employee applications to see if any of the people they turned away happened to be someone who “checked the box” as a former felon.
“To say because they checked the box you won’t even consider them or give them an opportunity, I would encourage you to rethink that,” he said as several people in the audience stood up and applauded his response.
Following his speech, Hutchinson reiterated his stance and said that his administrative team is currently working with lawmakers, correction officials, community advocates, nonprofits and industry leaders to make sure what was passed during the legislative session is successfully implemented.
He said he also plans to hold a “faith-based” summit later this year to get ideas from community and religious leaders on how to move this program forward.
“It takes a little bit of time and there is a little bit of work to be done there,” Hutchinson told Talk Business & Politics. “But I need to talk about it more. This has been a good reminder that I should be talking about it more.”