In the Batesville and Independence County area 35 percent of people in the target age-range for manufacturing jobs (people in their 20s and 30s) are unemployed. This includes recently unemployed, long-term unemployed, and under-employed, such as working as contractor or self-employed.

These statistics were part of an economic development presentation given to the Batesville City Council during its Tuesday night meeting.

Brian Shonk, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs with the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, shared with the group three of the main reasons for this: the cycle of generational poverty, substance use disorder, and the workplace skills gap.

Generational poverty is defined as resignation to the quality of life afforded them by their current sources of income. The 2020 Arkansas Economic Security Report states a family of two adults and one child in Arkansas needs an income of $49,900 to provide for basic living expenses. The median household income for Independence County is $44,319, Sharp County is $34,671, and Stone County is $38,188 – all below the level for basic needs for a minimal household (U.S. Census Bureau, Quick Facts in 2019 dollars).

UACCB, along with economic development leaders at both the city and county level, have worked together to receive a grant for the Future Fit Arkansas program, a pre-employment workforce training program that will prepare employees for entry-level employment within manufacturing companies, with funding from the American Relief Plan.

The first course will take approximately 96 hours of combined hands-on and online training for the basic skills needed to be successful in a manufacturing position. The state is providing funding to cover the cost of trainers and instruction for the program.

Future Fit is designed to prepare entry level employees for skilled production positions. The program curriculum was developed by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and is funded through the Office of Skills Development.

While the Future Fit program will fill the skills gap, stipends within the program will help participants financially.

To overcome some of the challenge of poverty, participants will be provided incentives in the form of stipends to encourage initial and ongoing participation. Feedback from employers shows new hire employees will work until receiving their first paycheck and then stop working only to return weeks or months later for another one-paycheck commitment.

Stipends in Future Fit will be smaller amounts spread over time to encourage continued participation. For example, participants in Stage 1 will receive $150 for each 24 hours of training completed. Additionally, to offset transportation issues, a fuel card in the amount of $50 will be provided for each 24-hour block of training.

Participants who complete the 96 hours of training in Stage 1 will move to Stage 2, on-the-job training, where they will be provided a stipend of $75 per week for four weeks in addition to their employer provided base salary. Participants who successfully complete the on-the-job training and move to Stage 3, full-time employment, will receive $2 per hour above the employer provided base salary. This benefit will be provided by the Independence County Economic Development Commission.

When it comes to the substance use disorder part, resources are being made available to help not only those who experience it firsthand, but people who experience the ripple effect with from family members or friends.

In other business, Crystal Johnson with the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce gave an update on the city’s economic development. Currently three business and industrial projects are underway.

“I think this is a testament to our community and workforce development,” Johnson said.

She also shared a retail report based on mobile analytics. This information can help guide recruitment of retailers to the area.

The city council also approved $3,500 per city employee as hazard pay for working during the pandemic. Batesville city clerk Denise Johnston pointed out that tax and withholding will be taken from these funds, and it will be spread out over several payroll periods.

Damon Johnson, city engineer, provided a brief report which included the fact that 75 percent of the large sewer pipe project has been placed. The street department has been patching potholes and the water department is replacing the water line along Broad Street. Mayor Rick Elumbaugh and Johnson visited with Entegrity solar last week and paperwork has been submitted for the American-made floating solar array on the city’s wastewater ponds.

“My comfort level went up a lot after seeing how it works in-person, and we’re ready,” Johnson said.

In the Batesville Police Department report, there were 58 accidents last month and 12 arrests, so the department will increase traffic control measures.

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