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JOHN LOVETT  // Times Record

Training programs in association with local manufacturers are a focus for growing local educational institutions like the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Vista College, and Arkansas Tech University-Ozark.

A concentration on manufacturing is given by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce not just because of the city’s long history in the industry, but it has the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, for every dollar spent in manufacturing, another $1.89 is added to the economy. And for every one worker in manufacturing, there are another four employees hired elsewhere.

The number of manufacturing jobs in Fort Smith increased by about 300 between August and December 2018 to 17,700 jobs in large part to continued expansion at Mars Petcare. At its Fort Smith plant, the global company produces Cesar and Sheba wet dog and cat foods, as well as Iams, Nutro and Crave brands.

Over the past three years, Mars Petcare has invested more than $120 million and created more than 255 new jobs. The global pet food market is projected to grow to over $98 billion by the year 2022, according to Grand View Research.

With the recent addition of Silgan Plastics’ new facility 100,000-square-foot facility in Fort Smith, the number of manufacturing jobs for the area is also expected to increase by another 150. Glatfelter, the Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of specialty papers, set up shop in late 2017 and early 2018 to become one of the latest corporate additions to the city. The global company invested about $90 million to a repurpose a building and create about 80 high-tech manufacturing jobs with its first “airlaid” materials facility in the United States. The average salary there is about $27 an hour, making products like speciality paper products.

Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen says many manufacturing jobs have also been retained over the past five years in an increasingly competitive market. Much like the rest of the nation, the area is also in a transition period between traditional manufacturing jobs and high-tech manufacturing jobs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of manufacturing jobs has hovered around 18,000 for the past six years, hitting a high point in December 2014 with about 18,400 jobs. Total non-farm jobs in the Fort Smith metropolitan statistical area as of December 2018 was about 113,000.

Several Fort Smith area manufacturing facilities have seen expansions or additions over 2017 and 2018 have added about 650 jobs to the local economy.

Among the companies that are expanding or have expanded since 2016 also include Pernod Ricard, PRADCO, Midwest Automation & Custom Fabrication, Applied Proces, Qual Serve, Simmons, Zero Mountain and Bekaert in Van Buren.

Custom Fabrication and Engineering, a steel manufacturer in Fort Smith, and Midwest Automation in Arkoma, announced their merger in June with an expectation to create 85 new jobs.

PRADCO, makers of YUM fishing lures and Thill Floats, has added over 200 jobs since 2017. PRADCO has invested more than $2 million in 16 new molding machines and a 13,000-square-foot production facility.

Bekaert announced in May it was investing $16 million in a 100,000-square-foot expansion to its wire-production plant in Van Buren to add about 40 new jobs.

Applied Process, a metal austempering facility, has added 30 jobs in Fort Smith this year by converting a facility at 5400 N. Sixth St.

The average entry-level production wage there is $31,500, with health benefits and bonuses bringing the average entry level production total compensation to $49,600.

While robots are not killing off all the jobs like many have feared, people are often working alongside them and that requires a different skill set, according to Michael Shapiro, director of Strategic Communications for the National Association of Manufacturers.

As a result of the new way of doing things, the nation has about 506,000 jobs sitting unfilled in what’s being called a “skills gap.”

Glatfelter and ABB, formerly known Baldor Electric Co., however, are examples of the direction manufacturing jobs need to go locally, Allen said. Wages there average about $25 an hour, about 30 percent higher than in traditional manufacturing facilities.

With the change in technology comes a need for a different level of education for both teens in school to people already in the job market. That education level often relates more to computer programming.

The recent millage increase, which was heavily promoted by local employers like ABB, was passed by voters of the Fort Smith School District in 2018. IN that $825,000 has been budgeted for technology improvements to schools.

“The community realizes that new training is needed,” Allen said. “The millage increase was so important in preparing our workforce for the jobs of the future.”