The state of Arkansas definitely has room to improve in battling other states in the region for economic development projects and the day-to-day economy, Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce president Randy Zook said Thursday. He also declared that the next Governor needs to create a “workforce czar” or an empowered panel on Day One.
Zook spoke to several regional economic development and community leaders early Thursday at the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce office.
“We are in a very tough race with other states (to compete). And we need to step on the gas,” Zook told the group.
He suggested that state officials work to make the state more competitive on the business front by looking at taxes, the cost of doing business, workforce training and regulations. The state was not ranked in the top 25 in a study done by Site Selection Magazine, looking at issues related to site selection and it ranked 35th in the nation in a Tax Foundation study looking at taxes, Zook said.
“We have room to improve. It is just like Alice in Wonderland where you have to run just as fast as you can in order to stay in the race,” Zook said.
Arkansas had a 1.2% job growth rate in 2013, compared to a 3.4% job growth rate in Texas, Zook said. He also noted that Arkansas’ per capita income is $7,500 lower than the national average, with the state’s tax climate “relatively high.”
However, Zook said the manufacturing sector in Northeast Arkansas has grown in recent years and the state has one of the lowest costs of doing business in the nation. Arkansas has also turned a $360 million deficit into a $200 million surplus in the state’s unemployment insurance program.
EDUCATION AND WORKFORCE
Zook said education and workforce issues need to be addressed on a statewide level, with an emphasis starting with students in school.
“We need to help young people realize you do not need a four-year baccalaureate degree to succeed in the United States economy,” Zook said. “We need to swing the pendulum back.”
Business owners also face a problem with employees who may not have so-called soft skills, Zook said. Soft skills include showing up punctually to work, dressing appropriately, and interacting with workers or customers in a professional manner.
While not mentioning names, the chamber president said a Sonic restaurant in south Arkansas recently closed because the owner could not find enough employees who were willing to go to work. However, a possible way to help businesses who face similar issues is having a good pre-employment program, Zook said.
Improving the Arkansas workforce has been discussed by both major gubernatorial candidates – Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross – on the campaign trail this year.
Zook said he believes the issue must be addressed on day one, no matter which candidate is elected.
“They have to acknowledge that a crisis exists,” Zook said. “I would call for a panel to look at the issue and even create a ‘Workforce Czar."
Zook also discussed the vote to reauthorize the Private Option. Arkansas’ Private Option takes federal Medicaid expansion dollars and uses it in private health insurance exchanges to subsidize low income workers’ health care coverage. A bipartisan supermajority of the General Assembly passed the program in 2013 and renewed funding in 2014.
He said while the program has helped reduce the number of uninsured Arkansans, the future costs of the program needs addressing.
“It is all about paying for it. It needs fine tuning, but you have to be rational,” Zook said.