Future FIT new program within the Center for Business and Professional Development at UAFS is taking the guesswork out of lining up graduates’ skills with employers’ needs.
The genesis of the project was a 2017 study conducted by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission that indicated there were 24,000 manufacturing jobs open in Arkansas, including 900-1,000 in Fort Smith. Further research showed that 80 percent of those jobs require a high school diploma or GED and some technical skills.
So AEDC contacted 10 manufacturers in the Arkansas River Valley, employers like Rheem, Gerdau and International Paper, and asked them what they needed in entry-level workers. These companies, working with AEDC, developed a job standards report spelling out what they needed in new employees.
AEDC took that list to Kendall Ross, director of the Center for Business and Professional Development, and asked him to develop a curriculum to train workers to these standards.
“That’s how Future FIT was born,” Ross said. “It’s a 96-hour course. It meets three hours a night, three nights a week, for 12 weeks. At the end of the course, we have an employment event for (the students). We can’t get them jobs, but we give them the skills and connect them with employers.”
Six of the nine students in the first cohort received jobs immediately after graduation, an excellent rate, especially considering some had past felony convictions.
Using a learning management system through Tuling University and about $70,000 worth of equipment, students learn about safety practices, hydraulics, and pneumatics. They learn to work with power hand tools and on an assembly line. The course includes a mathematics section.
An important aspect of the course is teaching essential “soft skills,” workplace behaviors employers expect: punctuality, time management, consistent effort, integrity, honor, and customer service.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic turned education upside down, Future FIT has undergone some changes. It is now a five week course wiith four weeks of online learning and one week of practical laboratory experience. Ross expects the next session to start in October.
The CBPD has a two-year agreement with the AEDC, a division of the state Department of Commerce, to offer the class four times in 2020 and four more in 2021. The state pays the bill; there is no cost to the students or the university.
“What is the worth of this to the community?” Ross asked. “We’re taking people who are either unemployed or underemployed and moving them to a living wage; it’s sustaining that family. The family moves from surviving to thriving. In the long term, we can reduce recidivism and reduce foster care rates.”
Those last two points are significant in the greater Fort Smith area where jail overcrowding and high foster care rates are vexing, but the program has implications beyond the Arkansas River Valley.
“The state came to us, of all the colleges and universities in the state they came to CBPD, to develop this plan,” Ross said. “What we’re going to do is take what we have developed and give everything to 10 other universities and colleges to begin this same process.”
That training will concentrate its efforts in the state population centers at colleges like Northwest and Northeast Arkansas community colleges and the University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College.
The course also unifies UAFS as Ross pulls from across the campus to teach portions of the course. Staff from the College of Business, College of Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, Human Resources Department, and the College of Applied Science and Technology participate.
But the value to the individual student is perhaps the greatest value of the course. Ross told the story of a 19-year-old graduate who’d spent years in foster care and then moved into the Children’s Emergency Shelter’s Get Real 24 program, a housing option for young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. The young man needed help with those essential soft skills and an opportunity to find valuable work.
He was a member of the first cohort who graduated into a full-time job. Ross followed up with a call to Human Resources, who reported the graduate was doing a “fantastic” job.
“Now you have taxpayers, contributing members of society,” Ross said. “They have solid jobs working at least 40 hours per week with benefits. After a 90-day probation period, most of them will have a chance for a raise. This is a great opportunity for people who thought they might not have any opportunities.”