Economic development tax off to a sound start, Nisbett says

The voter-approved economic development sales tax is off to a sound start with revenues of $3.5 million for its first year of collection, Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of The Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, said Wednesday.

Nisbett gave a report at the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority Board of Directors meeting.

Thus far, the Economic Development Board has appropriated $329,000 to Horizon Foods and $73,000 to Vivone Bioscience for industry start-ups. Vivone is manning a facility at the Pine Bluff Arsenal while Horizon has taken over the former Tyson Foods poultry plant on West Second Avenue in Pine Bluff.

Port Authority Board President David Bush said he’s hopeful the tax may soon generate “something with the port.”

Also during the board meeting, Pine Bluff Terminal manager Mike Murphy of Kinder Morgan gave a tonnage report and commented on the outlook for crop shipments and the fall harvest, as well as conditions of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

The commodity tonnage at the public terminal totals 42,385.55 through July. Murphy said low water levels on the Mississippi River have resulted in some cargo barges running aground. The drought is impacting the Arkansas River as well, he said, but the Arkansas is “in better shape” than the Mississippi.

In regard to the crop harvest, Murphy said it’s anticipated that producers with “good irrigation” will have a 5 or 6 percent greater yield.

Meanwhile, Nisbett said she believes many persons are unaware of the differences in manufacturing of the past and present.

She referenced a recent Southern Growth Policies Board commentary, describing the report as an informative account of the “challenge and opportunity” offered by a current workforce skills gap.

The paper, authored by Allen Rose, Sullivan University System vice president for business and governmental relations, notes that while U.S. unemployment has hovered around 9 percent, there are approximately 600,000 unfilled jobs in the manufacturing sector.

“Manufacturing offers a multitude of jobs that provide economic opportunity and upward mobility to workers at varying skill and education levels,” the paper states.

But a major challenge facing companies today is that they cannot find the skilled individuals needed for current advanced manufacturing workplaces, the article pointed out. The paper also stated that while access to a highly-skilled, flexible workforce is rated as the most important factor in manufacturing effectiveness, “The industry’s aging workforce will only exacerbate the situation as companies seek replacement from a shrinking number of qualified workers.”

In a 2011 public opinion survey, 18-24 year olds ranked manufacturing last among industries in which they should choose to start a career. Rose wrote that while “there is a disconnect between the public’s perception of the manufacturing industry of the past and the modern, vibrant, high-tech, automated manufacturing workplaces of today,” the “talent shortage” within the industry “must be addressed” if the nation’s manufacturing sector is to “thrive and compete in the global economy.”

Blanketing the South with a public relations campaign is among Rose’s prescriptions for a fix, along with industry preparation offerings by community colleges and other post-secondary institutions that satisfy manufacturers-demanded skills. Meanwhile, he said, the public’s view of manufacturing must be altered and the industry must offer competitive salaries.