More investment in workforce development was announced Thursday by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

A $500,000 boost by the chamber to the $1.3 million Walton Family Foundation grant for workforce development was announced Thursday at the chamber’s annual meeting.

Tim Allen, president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber, said the funding is expected to help meet the growing demands of modern manufacturing and coordinate job training initiatives with industry and educational institutions in the area.

Trent Goins, president and CEO of OK Foods and outgoing chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, said passage of the millage increase by Fort Smith voters contributed to both the grant funding by the Walton Family Foundation and additional support for workforce development from the chamber.

With the millage increase, the Fort Smith Public School District will have about $13 million to spend on a career technical center as called for in the Vision 2023 plan, Allen noted. The plan that was approved by the school board in December puts career planning at the top of its goals. A first-year update of the plan is to be presented by students and teachers today.

Over the past two years the chamber, local schools and businesses took part in a study that found that not only is the average age for a worker in Fort Smith 50, there are not enough qualified people to fill the jobs available.

“Seven years ago, when I got here, there was 10 percent unemployment and today we simply don’t have enough qualified people to fill the jobs we have in Fort Smith and this Fort Smith region,” Allen said.

A four-month analysis of the region’s employability skills situation was commissioned by the chamber to Ted Abernathy of Economic Leadership in North Carolina. Using information from business leaders across industries, Abernathy’s findings show that contributing factors for employment quantity issues in the region include “retiring baby boomers and a slowing population growth; prime-age labor force participation rates; and selective migration of millenials.”

Showing charts that give the percentage of employment by industry in the Fort Smith metropolitan area, Allen noted the IT sector has 38 percent of the jobs surveyed. It closely aligns with the manufacturing sector at 34 percent, he observed. Healthcare came in at 28 percent of the jobs among the area’s largest employers.

For the year 2016, “middle-skill” jobs made up 52 percent of the jobs in Arkansas. Middle-skill jobs are defined in the study as being more than a high-school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. One-third of the jobs in Arkansas in 2016 were considered “high-skill” and 18 percent were considered “low-skill.”

Five priorities found in the study from employer input include: More and better training for specialized mid-level skill credentials; a regional effort focused on talent attraction; better training facilities to reflect current working conditions; more and better information for the public understanding of the jobs available; and simplified points of contact in the education/training community and employers.

Allen noted progress is already being made on the goals through the Fort Smith Public School’s Vision 2023 strategic plan, and ongoing coordination with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Over the next two years, with help from the millage increase funding, the area will see improved training facilities, specialized middle-skill credentials, targeted talent attraction and employer engagement in education.

“Fort Smith is setting the example in workforce training in the partnership you have with industry,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, keynote speaker for the chamber’s annual meeting, told over 600 people at the Fort Smith Convention Center.

Providing a picture behind his personal motivations for becoming what many people call “the jobs governor,” Hutchinson said when he was a boy growing up on a farm near Gravette, his father had to drive to Tulsa and work through the week at a factory to support the family.

“It made me ambitious for families to be able to have dads and moms that could find jobs close to home,” Hutchinson said. “That is really what is at stake focusing on economic development.”

Growing the economy to pay for higher teacher pay, roads construction, or any number of state improvements, tie back into economic development, jobs growth, and a diversified economy, Hutchinson said while mentioning the construction of the U.S. Marshals Museum, developments at Chaffee Crossing and downtown Fort Smith, growth of the 188th Wing and the many local leaders he regularly calls upon for appointment to state boards and commissions.

“Fort Smith has experienced success, has great leadership and enormous opportunity for the future,” Hutchinson said.

As well as job growth, economic improvements can be found in Sebastian County, the governor added, with a 21.5 percent decrease in the number of children in foster care and a 33 percent increase in adoptions. Just a few years ago, he added, the county made up for 15 percent of the foster care population with 60 percent of the foster children being sent out of the county for lack of foster homes in the county.

Hutchinson mentioned local companies like FFO Home, ArcBest, Mars Petcare and Glatfelter, as well as the oil and gas, and technology industries, as well as the strong retail sector, as having created a “dynamic economy” in the Fort Smith region. But keeping a diversified economy was “vitally important.”

Pending re-election, the governor said he will ask the General Assembly for a $4,000 increase in base teacher pay, and an issue before voters in November 2020 to raise $400 million annually for roads construction and maintenance.

In the Nov. 6 general election, Hutchinson faces Democratic Party candidate Jared K. Henderson and Libertarian Party candidate Mark West.