Gentry center a model for state, governor says
GENTRY — Employers across the state hope the School District’s new Career and Technical Education Center becomes a model, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday at the center’s opening.
The center will teach nursing, information technology or diesel engine repair and maintenance to participating high school students from four cooperating school districts: Gentry, Decatur, Gravette and Bentonville. Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville also are cooperating in providing the courses. District superintendent Terrie Metz said the district hopes to offer after-hours classes to adults in the near future.
Hutchinson and 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack, R- Rogers, were among at
least 100 local, state and business leaders present at the ribbon cutting. Both the governor and the congressman mentioned the shortage of skilled workers throughout the state and the potential for workers to earn more with the kinds of skills the center will teach.
“The single biggest concern I hear from those building their businesses and expanding is the lack of a skilled workforce,” Womack said.
Hutchinson grew up in nearby Gravette and was particularly pleased to see this type of cooperative venture get its start in western Benton County. When he was growing up there, the county’s communities were widely separated. “As they’ve grown together, they’ve been able to form these kinds of partnerships,” he said. “That is part of the strength and effectiveness of this region. Every community kept its individual pride, but are able to cooperate regionally.”
All three of the fields taught at the center are in high demand, particularly diesel maintenance and repair, said school and business leaders at Tuesday’s ceremony. “We could put 20 guys to work right now, would like to hire 50 and we’re just one company surrounded by others,” said Kenneth Calhoun, vice president of customer relations at Truck Dealers of Arkansas, which sells new and used commercial trucks.
The information technology and diesel programs are expanding with teachers brought in from private industry, Gentry district spokesmen said. The diesel program will have 15 students with a waiting list for others this school year, and the information technology classes will have 10. The certified nursing assistant and health care classes have 102 signed up for the coming school year. Each of the programs last two years with two class periods daily.
A trucking company didn’t provide the original impetus for the diesel courses at center. A baking company did. McKee Foods, known as the maker of Little Debbie snack cakes, operates a plant that’s one of the Gentry area’s largest employers. School District officials brought their idea for a career center to McKee Foods years ago and asked what the company’s Gentry location needed. The company needed diesel mechanics to maintain its fleet of vehicles, company spokesmen said.
“Not long ago, we advertised a position for a diesel mechanic. Thirty-four days later, our human resource director told me we didn’t have a single applicant,” said James Berry, superintendent of the trucking fleet at McKee’s location in Gentry.
A high school graduate going though the center’s diesel program can get an entry-level technical assistant job at between $10 and $15 an hour, according to U.S. Labor Department figures. After initial training by the company hiring the technician, that can go up to $16 a hour, but that’s only the start, said Calhoun, Berry and others.
“There’s not a person managing in our company who didn’t start by working on trucks,” Berry said. “That’s how you become a supervisor. It’s a career path.” Workers with the necessary skill set find plenty of opportunities for advancement, Calhoun said and Berry agreed.
If the Gentry center works as planned, McKee will support similar efforts in other states and is looking at prospects now, said company spokesman John Williams, corporate fleet maintenance manager from McKee’s headquarters in Collegedale, Tenn. The company is sending Tyson Sontag as teacher at Gentry during part of his work days. Sontag is a master mechanic who has won multiple state competitions and one national championship in his field, Berry said.
Then-Gentry superintendent Randy Barnett and his staff were the ones who approached McKee Foods with the idea for a center. Barnett retired in June after 25 years at the district. He’s a native of southeast Arkansas who said he hopes the concept spreads to other parts of the state. “A small district cannot do this sort of thing on its own any more,” he said. “Several small districts can.”
The center was built in Gentry “because the people in our district ponied up,” Barnett said. District voters approved a 3.1-mill increase in their taxes in September 2016 to build the center, among other buildings. The center is near Gentry High School and has a full- service garage for large diesel trucks. The building comes complete with a crane to lift engines out of those vehicles. The other districts are providing financial support in a cooperative arrangement that required changes in state law to create.
Kay Milsap, of Gentry, examines Tuesday a medical patient mannequin in one of the classrooms in the new Gentry Career and Technical Education Center on the high school campus. The center will concentrate on diesel technology and medical field professions.
A 5-ton jib crane stands near the center of the Diesel Lab on Tuesday in the new Gentry Career and Technical Education Center on the high school campus. Guests, dignitaries and school personnel attended opening of the center designed for the Bentonville, Decatur, Gentry and the Gravette school districts.
Tyson Sontag (center), instructor of Diesel Technology, explains Tuesday the use of a multimeter, from Purkeys of Lowell, in one of the new classrooms in the new Gentry Career and Technical Education Center on the high school campus.