Gen­try cen­ter a model for state, gov­er­nor says

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DOUG THOMP­SON

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK

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.

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