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Arkansas governor touts job growth, expansion of workforce training

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Michael Hibblen
/
KUAR News
Gov. Asa Hutchinson was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock.

As Gov. Asa Hutchinson prepares to leave office, he says it’s vital for Arkansas to continue growing its workforce.

Speaking to business executives, legislators and community leaders Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, Hutchinson touted the expansion of several industries during his two terms in office.

“Because of our focused efforts on job creation, we have added over 125,000 people to the workforce since I was elected [to] office in 2015,” Hutchinson said. That has enabled the state to grow its economy, he said, and expand the number of people who pay taxes.

In particular, Hutchinson spoke about the rapid expansion of the steel industry in east Arkansas, which will enable the state to soon surpass Pennsylvania and become the top steel-producing state in the nation. But to sustain the growth of industrial development, Hutchinson said the state needs to continue training young people to fill positions with employers.

Workforce training centers have now been expanded to every public high school in the state, Hutchinson said. When he took office in 2015, 55 high schools did not have any kind of such training.

“[The number of schools] was consistently reduced over each year. And guess what? This past week it was down to one, and yesterday we reduced that number to zero. In other words, we have 100% coverage for our high schools in Arkansas for a quality workforce training center,” Hutchinson said to applause.

He also announced a $25 million to $40 million manufacturing workforce training center will be constructed in Conway for high-paying tech jobs.

“It will serve the entire state with the latest in C&C automation, robotics, industrial maintenance, craft skills, plastic injection molding and other needs of manufacturers," Hutchinson said. "This site will serve the training needs of incumbent workers, new hires and upskilling unemployed individuals in our state. Is this not great news?”

He also said the state is in a strong financial position, having ended the last fiscal year with a $1.6 billion state budget surplus. During a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly in August, lawmakers approved using much of that to accelerate tax cuts. Some of the extra money was added to reserve accounts which will benefit the state if there are future economic downturns.

“We have a $2 billion reserve account and catastrophic fund account to make sure that we’re prepared for a rainy day in Arkansas. But nationally, you look at the challenge of inflation, energy costs and rising interest rates — the future of our economy, we have to make sure we can get it right and we can continue for it to grow.”

Revenue so far during the fiscal year that began in July has been above forecast. Last week, Hutchinson presented his proposed budget for next fiscal year to members of the legislative Joint Budget Committee, which will serve as a starting point as lawmakers begin their work.

The governor said Tuesday the state is in a good financial position as Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders prepares to be sworn in as his successor in January. Hutchinson congratulated her for her victory and said they are working to ensure a smooth transition in power.

“We’ve met. It’s gonna be a great transition. She’s going to enjoy her time as governor, just as I have. That’s been such a high honor in my public life — there’s not been a higher honor,” Hutchinson said.

Michael Hibblen is News Director of UA Little Rock Public Radio. A 34-year radio veteran, he oversees the KUAR News staff, plans coverage and edits stories while also reporting and anchoring newscasts.