October 1st, 2017: SW Times (full link below)
Editorial: Fort Smith’s manufacturing future still looks bright
It’s National Manufacturing Month, and while we mark it by taking a look at area manufacturers both past and present, we also recognize that manufacturing isn’t what it used to be, both in the scale and type of production, nor should it be.
Fort Smith in its early days found its place in the regional economy through industry and trade through use of the Arkansas River and the railroad. Employment opportunities were available in cotton and lumber mills, furniture making and bakeries, among other industries.
Over time, however, things have changed, and while employment numbers in manufacturing don’t match what they once were, manufacturing remains an important part of the Fort Smith workforce.
There has been a significant change in Fort Smith’s manufacturing base in the past couple of decades. Manufacturing jobs have given way to other jobs in other fields, altering the percentage of manufacturing jobs in our region.
But a real opportunity exists here for those with the right skills. Manufacturing plays a major role in the workforce, and there are still good-paying jobs to be had with the right training and education. We’re encouraged to see both local companies and educational institutes recognize this and are pleased to see the multifaceted approach in educating potential employees from around the area. For example, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith has formed partnerships with Baldor and other local manufacturers to tailor education and training to meet the latest demands in the manufacturing world. Education will be key to making sure manufacturers thrive for years to come. And further, Fort Smith schools are making sure students understand options on careers choices in a variety of ways, including through use of programs that allow for guest speakers in a variety of careers (a sort of “Match.com of careers,” as one official put it.)
Manufacturing is an ever-changing field, and Fort Smith must be willing to be a part of those changes. As technology continues to evolve, our workforce must be able to evolve as well. Technology will continue to revolutionize manufacturing, altering the world as we know it, and we must be ready for it. Although high-tech fields are changing the face of manufacturing, many industrial manufacturing jobs, including in the Fort Smith region, still rely on basic skills while also requiring a wider depth of training in technology. New technology won’t just replace old forms of human labor but will create demand for new forms of human work, allowing for higher wages and increased economic growth.
Change includes the makeup of the workforce as well. Take a look at Eryn Johnston, a 21-year-old intern at Gerdau in Fort Smith who has in many ways helped change the stereotypes of who a manufacturing employee is. The steel industry continues to be a male-dominated field, but Johnston’s internship at Gerdau is helping to change stigmas for women in engineering.
The 2012 closing of Fort Smith’s Whirlpool plant was a tough blow to the area, but its long-shuttered building was purchased earlier this year with an eye on opening it up to a new company. Similarly, the 2008 fire that destroyed the Cargill plant in Booneville was equally devastating. And yet, this region has survived and thrived. There is still a demand for skilled laborers in the region, thanks to local company expansions and new businesses coming into the area, including those at Chaffee Crossing (think Mars Petcare and Glatfelter).
This week, we join with the Fort Smith Area Chamber of Commerce to recognize National Manufacturing Week. We’re excited to see where Fort Smith manufacturing is headed as we look back at where it’s been.