West Memphis was in high spirits during last week's dedication of Mid-South Community College's Workforce Technology Center. The new $7 million center, part of a four-school consortium that includes Mid-South, Arkansas Northeastern College, East Arkansas Community College, and Phillips Community College, includes multimedia classrooms, automotive manufacturing training areas, and diesel maintenance technology equipment. The schools have joined forces to stimulate large-scale growth in Arkansas' manufacturing sector, as well as the more immediate goal of training workers for the Hino Motors plant in Marion. We asked Mid-South president Glen Fenter why the group, known as ADTEC (Arkansas Delta Training and Education Consortium), is so important.
-- By Ben Popper
Flyer: How did this consortium of colleges begin?
Fenter: Necessity is the mother of invention. When we started having conversations locally with the Hino Motors officials, we came to understand very rapidly that in order to maximize the opportunities of Hino and other foreign investors, one community college would not be enough to provide the wealth of workforce programs we would need for the region. So we began to communicate with our other members as to the rationale of commingling our efforts. The formalization of that effort really was a large part of the Department of Labor's recent decision to give us a $5.9 million grant. Automotive manufacturing represents a huge opportunity for growth in our region, and we want to make sure we're prepared for that.
At the dedication, Mike Beebe, the attorney general of Arkansas, spoke about adapting the curriculum to the needs of industry. Does tailoring yourself to one company limit your ability to grow in the future?
As we develop our school, we are allowing dozens of different kinds of industry to have input, not just automotive. The end result of this curriculum is to be prepared for all manufacturing areas.
What is the central goal of your facility?
To be successful in creating a workforce. That is our only true goal. This isn't about growing enrollment; our goal is to make eastern Arkansas the absolute best location for industry to choose in North America. The equation that we use is "world-class geography plus world-class infrastructure plus world-class education equals world-class economy." We have the interstates, airports, and intermodal facilities. We have the river, flat, cheap land, and are located in the center of the country. We have a population that, when educated, could meet any workforce demand.
What does your student body look like?
There are several populations. The first is the unemployed, and we have everything from literacy to adult education and work-based learning for those who may have missed some of their educational background. Then you start targeting the underemployed, those who want better jobs, so we will have night and weekend programs. The group missing from that is our kids. How do we capture and excite them? We are going to aggressively add programs to the public schools here to encourage our kids to consider this opportunity.
When and how did you make connections with industry in Japan?
The first model we had for creating this training consortium was based on distribution, warehousing, and logistics. We knew that was a big part of our economy and all those geographic variables are important to us. When a Hino location appeared here, we knew we would be shifting our focus from distribution and logistics into the manufacturing arena. We went to Japan in September of 2005 and began to establish relations with the Hino training models so we would be able to make as much progress as possible in terms of making them comfortable. While there, we saw the Hino High School, which is a great opportunity to see how they handle education. We saw their factories and the level of technological intensity there. A lot of what we saw in Japan reinforced what we already had in play.
Has there been any formal study of the center's economic impact on the region?
There have been a number of projections. We've seen some estimates for the initial hiring at the new plants. The cumulative estimates are 1,000 new jobs, and that's conservative. More aggressive estimates look to see that number grow many times over if these companies are as successful as we want to make them.
At one point, the Japanese auto industry was considered a threat to American jobs. Was there any negative reaction to foreign investors in Arkansas?
I think people are happy to see great education, job opportunity, and economy. It is something our citizens have longed for. I don't think it matters to them who the company is. If they are willing to invest, we want to support them and grow them, as long as they are putting people in eastern Arkansas to work. We are offering classes today and have been training workers for the Hino plant for months.