PINE BLUFF — The head of the Delta Regional Authority said a mouthful when he told a jobs conference last week that Arkansas’ next governor would face a unique set of challenges after taking office in 2015.
Unique? Yes. New? No.
Several generations removed from a Depression- and flood-fueled exodus, eastern Arkansas is still trying to regain an economic toehold. Governors and governments haven’t solved the problems in the Delta, but gubernatorial candidates Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have vowed to try.
Seeking to replace term-limited Gov. Mike Beebe, the two spoke separately at the "Reimagining the Delta Workforce" seminar Wednesday at the University of Pine Bluff. Each agreed that something had to be done to improve the number and quality of jobs.
"Everything starts with education," said Ross, a Democrat who has proposed increasing funding for pre-kindergarten programs. "I want to be the education governor because that is how you become the jobs governor."
Hutchinson, the Republican nominee who has said he wants to be the "jobs governor," favors working with high school students in need of a trade and in need of a job they can start upon graduating.
"There should be a job at the end of the training," Hutchinson said. "If your local business is tourism, you need to offer career education in hospitality."
This is the land that gave birth to the blues, but 100 years ago, the troubles people saw were long hours of hot work for little pay. Now, the lament is that there aren’t enough jobs to go around.
One thing that sets the Delta apart from other parts of the state is its abundance of agricultural land and the relatively few people needed to run farms. Increased mechanization has cut into labor needs. It’s the same story among the manufacturers that remain — the workers need a greater skillset.
A goal of the Delta Regional Authority, which sponsored last week’s conference, is to attract high-quality, high-paying jobs to the region and have workers who can pick up a skill quickly.
"Bring me an employee with a critical thinking skill," said Chris Masingill, the agency’s federal co-chairman.
One conclusion some seminar attendees came to: Not all Arkansas school children need to go to college; a technical degree and broad skill set would do for some.
"Young people without college can still get a good-paying job," Ross said, suggesting enrollment in "career tech" jobs where students learn a trade or specific skill.
Hutchinson spoke of his teenage years, when he mowed lawns and sacked groceries to make money before landing jobs at a grape juice factory and a Westinghouse plant.
"I look back on those experiences and they are no longer available to young people," Hutchinson said.
Whoever is elected governor in November will be next in line to face the dual longstanding problems of double-digit unemployment and a high poverty rate.
Beebe noted in 2007, after the state failed to attract an automobile assembly plant to the Marion area, said he expected workforce training and education would always be an issue. "We’re making progress there, but we’re not where we need to be," he said then.
His predecessor, Mike Huckabee, four years earlier cited the importance of training and economic incentives when Arkansas landed an auto parts manufacturer in the Delta — though Toyota had recently passed on Arkansas.
While president, former Gov. Bill Clinton, created the Delta Regional Authority and targeted the entire Mississippi River Valley. His foundation has studied anti-poverty programs targeting the Delta.
And a foundation set up in the 1970s by the family of former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller delivers grants to organizations targeting a Delta in decay.
Randy Zook, the president of the Arkansas State Chamber and Associated Industries of Arkansas, said the Delta should aim high but not reject any offer of help.
"Flipping burgers? It’s not a great career but it’s a lot better than not having money in your pocket," Zook said at the seminar. "The only bad job is where the paycheck bounces."