Arkansas must invest more in programs that promote education and research in sciences, mathematics, engineering or technology to draw high-paying jobs to the state, said Charisse Childers, executive director of Accelerate Arkansas during the
Conway Rotary Club meeting Thursday.
"If Arkansas would invest $15 to $30 million range — it would propel Arkansas to a leadership position, and we would be recognized," Childers said.
The nonprofit group supports legislation and initiatives meant to make it easier to start-up technology-based businesses, improve education in math and sciences and increase the state’s per capita income.
Currently, the state is 44th in the nation — at 81.6 percent of the average national per capita income. That’s better than a few years ago, when Arkansas ranked 48th, but it’s not where Childers wants the state to be.
To improve the state’s wages, the state must provide more funding — and provide it consistently — to groups like Arkansas Research Alliance, which focuses on promoting university-based research, Childers said.
So far, government officials seem willing to pursue a knowledge-based economy but funding is a problem, she said.
The state passed legislation in 2007 to supplement salaries for teachers who excel at teaching science, technology, engineering and math, but the incentive was never funded, Childers said. Last year, the state created the Acceleration Fund, a framework for meant to "advance the growth of high-wage, knowledge-based and technology-driven jobs in Arkansas," according to documents provided at the meeting. The state did not establish a funding source, which is vital, Childers said.
During the Rotary meeting, Childers asked that members tell their legislators they support funding the Arkansas Acceleration Fund.
"We were the impetus for implementing STEM in our state," Childers said.
Some of those "STEM" programs are just taking off, including the STEMTeach program at the University of Central Arkansas. That program begins this fall and is part of an initiative of Gov. Mike Beebe’s Workforce Cabinet to prepare secondary science, math and computer science teachers.
Runge said the program teaches teachers to make science and math interesting.
"We’re all natural born scientists," Runge said. "But at some point in our lives a lot of people lose that interest."
Making science interesting for children will lead to more students choosing science when they go to college, which in turn means a skilled workforce to draw more companies like Acxiom, Runge said.
UCA is one of only three universities in the state to offer the program.
Childers said the state has made improvements in education, research and bringing in higher-paying jobs, but more is needed.
While UCA has education incentives for students to choose programs in math and sciences, state schools aren’t providing salary incentives. And, the state isn’t producing the needed number of science teachers to replace those who retire, Runge said.
"The reality is there’s a real need for people with these areas of expertise," Runge said.