Though local legislators believe proposed legislation will bolster workforce development in the Fort Smith area, some are skeptical of its potential impact on the local healthcare workforce.
Senate Bill 135, if passed, would revise funding methods for secondary vocational centers in Arkansas based on where vocations at the centers fall in a three-tier system. While legislators at a legislative panel Friday say the University of Arkansas Fort Smith is tailored for the passage of the bill, two who work in healthcare professions on Friday expressed concern over healthcare vocations potentially not receiving as much funding as other professions upon its passage.
According to legislators, healthcare jobs would fall under Tier 2, which would not receive as much workforce training funds as the jobs in Tier 1.
District 77 state Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, on Jan. 18 said Arkansas has a nursing shortage. Because of this, he said a more fair approach would be to allow more freedom to choose how funding would be divided among different training programs.
"We certainly need certified nursing assistants, we certainly need licensed practical nurses, but a lot of what the hospitals need is that registered nurse training," District 75 state Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, said Friday. "I’m not sure this does that much to affect or change that."
Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce Director Tim Allen said officials with two area hospitals are telling him they'll hire 100 nurses if they can be provided. He said this, combined with the fact that UAFS can run 30-35 people a year through its nursing program, should put healthcare in Tier 1 from an economic standpoint.
In response, District 8 state Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, said a substantial amount of money is put into healthcare training in the first place.
"To keep that at a level playing field, they put it at a Tier 2," he said.
Boyd on Friday said he still had concerns about healthcare workforce funding in the passage of the bill. However, he said he briefly aired his concerns to Office of Skills Development Deputy Director Cody Waits during the legislative session.
"He understands the amount of money coming in seems to be, from his perspective, more than what he is saying those programs in general cost. I think it’s going to take some more follow-up, probably another conversation longer than catching him in the hallway," Boyd said. "I do have concerns, but I am working on trying to understand."
On the flip side, Pitsch said seven of the nine vocations in this tier are taught at UAFS.
"No other school in the state is meeting the needs at that level, so they have a decision to make to try to talk people into adding one or two more," he said. "My advice is, they’re going to be the premier school based on that tier system."
District 78 state Rep. Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith, said he liked the premise of the bill but also aired caution.
"One thing we’ve got to be careful about is, we’ve got to make sure we’re outlining a little bit more in depth about what funds are going where, what they’re for," he said. "I think if we become a little too trusting, that’s how things fall through the cracks, but I think the premise of the bill and anything we can do to promote education, I’m always going to be for."