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1.31.24 – KUAR-By Maggie Ryan, & Seth Hooker

Central Arkansas will soon have more available jobs than available workers. A recent economic report from Metroplan, central Arkansas’ regional planning agency, cautions, “If you employ people, do not take them for granted.”

College enrollment in the state continues a decade-long decline, producing fewer and fewer specialized laborers. As older generations continue to retire, subsequent generations are not reproducing at a pace capable of filling the gaps in the workforce.

Metroplan recently released its bi-annual report detailing the economic outlook for the Little Rock metropolitan area. Job growth now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, with some 389,000 jobs available in October 2023 versus 366,000 in February 2020.

Last year, regional unemployment hit historic lows. Citing local college enrollment rates, the report speculates this low jobless rate (2.7%) is due to many young people choosing to enter the workforce rather than pursue higher education.

In 2022, central Arkansas saw only 32% of 18-24 year-olds enrolled in college, this down from over 40% in 2012. While this trend leads to employment in restaurants, fast food, and retail, industries that rely on a specialized workforce will soon find themselves wanting.

“Young people can spend a lot of time in limbo,” said Jonathan Lupton, Senior Planner at Metroplan. “They’ve finished some of their education and they’re not sure what to do next. Most of them are living on low incomes and they aren’t aware of the opportunities available to them.”

According to the report, there are about 765,000 people in the Little Rock metro area with about 364,500 (47.6%) active in the labor force. As older generations continue to retire from the workforce, subsequent generations are failing to produce replacements. At a glance the economy looks good, but employers are about to be in a unique position: demand for labor will soon surpass the amount of people able to perform it.

“We tend to be restricted by the number of workers available,” Lupton says. “In other words our economy generally works pretty well and people can find jobs, so the challenge then is the jobs finding the people. And that’s gotten more and more constrained in recent years, and particularly since the Pandemic.”

Lupton encourages prospective employers to stop waiting for applicants and start seeking out potential candidates. He recommends devising training programs designed to meet young people where they are.

“Employers should realize that if they need good workers, there are a lot of slightly confused young adults who are entering the workforce, not quite sure what to do with themselves. Some of them may have a lot of creative potential and a lot of ability. It’s important to find out how to tap into that.”

The Metroplan 2023 Economic Review and Outlook is available here.