Commerce Secretary Emphasizes Efficiency, Workforce Development at Economic Outlook Luncheon

Arkansas Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald covered a wide range of topics during the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Economic Outlook Luncheon, where he was the keynote speaker Wednesday.

„I don’t think you’ll be surprised when I say the economy is hitting on all cylinders,” he said. „We have pockets across the state that are really hitting on all cylinders. They’re stronger than they were six months ago, and I think they’re definitely stronger than they were a year ago.”

However, the future of the economy is still up in the air, judging by current economic indicators, McDonald said.

„Are we in a soft landing? Who knows?” he said. „It’s a little different this time because there are so many people working. So we’ll see.”

The Economy of Arkansas

But economic development officials in Arkansas are working diligently to protect the state from recession, the secretary said.

„Our economic development pipeline in the state is very strong,” McDonald said. „People who have worked there longer than I have, decades, say it’s the strongest they’ve ever seen.”

McDonald was appointed secretary of the Arkansas Department of Commerce in January following the inauguration of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Since then, he said, he has been working to make the agency more efficient, provide more support to small businesses and entrepreneurs, and update outdated policies.

„Small businesses represent 99% of all businesses…the state can do more to support entrepreneurs and development across the state,” he said. „If you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a small business, the state needs to do a better job of putting together a central, repository for asset maps of 'where do I go?'”

He said the department also wants to improve economic incentives to help Arkansas compete with other states.

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„They’ve been in place for 20 years. We’ve put together a group of statewide economic developers and coordinated with us at AEDC (Arkansas Economic Development Commission). It’s time to revamp them to make us more competitive with those states. Competing against, across the country,” McDonald said. .

He said the state is putting its money where its mouth is by investing the $45 million the federal government has awarded the state in Arkansas-based venture capital firms that „invest in true early stages.”

„We do things like this to focus more on our entrepreneurship and grow that sector of our economy,” he said.

The biggest challenge facing Arkansas’ economy is labor demands, McDonald said. 70% of Arkansas students will not earn a four-year degree, which is why the state emphasizes the benefits of trade schools and programs.

„We’re going to make sure they have the best training, that we’re connected to our two-year colleges, and that our high schools are in line with the needs of employers,” MacDonald said. „Overall, treating children according to needs, their workforce opportunities, their workforce experiences, pulling them through the educational system instead of pushing them; the labor system is, first, tied to the wants and desires. , but also the needs of business and industry.”

He pointed to South Arkansas College’s career accelerator campus, where high school students and adults can study everything from welding to automotive technology to forestry and more, as an example of a good workforce development program. The college also partners with local industries to develop and offer classes tailored to the needs of their workforce.

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’Inside Baseball’

MacDonald also provided an overview of the inner workings of the Commerce Department, giving luncheon attendees a look at the „inside baseball” of state government and highlighting some of the changes he has overseen since taking office. .

When the Department of Commerce was created in 2019, it had 10 divisions, McDonald said; Once he took office, he consolidated some of them, so now there are only nine.

„We’ve merged banking and securities, so we now have one commissioner instead of two, one CFO (chief financial officer) instead of two, so the things you do in business, we’re looking for opportunities to do that in state government,” he said.

He also worked to realign the department’s performance appraisals to take into account annual employee goals.

„There’s no place in the state’s performance evaluation system, when you’re evaluating your direct reports, specific goals and objectives they had to achieve in the previous year,” MacDonald said. „So the state is now starting to — and we’re looking at — we need to change our performance evaluation system so we can actually, you know, evaluate these programs based on objectives.”

He also noticed that some civil servants’ wages are equal to those of fast-food workers, and he hopes that their salaries can be increased.

„There are a lot of different wage ranges in the state — obviously a lot. The bottom four public wage ranges are lower than what you can make at Starbucks, so we’re reevaluating — the governor’s getting a committee to reevaluate that.”

Other regions

McDonald said economic development efforts are gaining momentum across the state, from a major steel fabrication investment in Northeast Arkansas to entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas to finance and information technology in Central Arkansas. In the South, the growing lithium industry could give residents something to look forward to, he said.

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„The next steps where that industry is going are very exciting. This could be a game changer for all Arkansans,” he said.

Federal legislation like the CHIPS and SCIENCE Act passed into law last year could bring investment to Arkansas. McDonald’s, though the state is unlikely to attract a chip manufacturing facility, could be involved in packaging products that are used by the defense industry, which also has a large presence in southern Arkansas.

Overall, the state’s economy is doing well, with more Arkansans working now than ever before, and more to come, McDonald said.

„There’s a lot of good things happening in the state. I’m very positive that, you know, what we do well is we’re big enough to attract big projects, but we’re small enough to be selective. Get on the phone and put together a team of subject matter experts to solve a problem,” he said. He said. „We work best when we work together; friendly competition is great, but friendly cooperation is even better.”


Arkansas Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Economic Outlook Luncheon. He covered various topics related to the state’s economy and business sector during his address at the event held at the El Dorado Convention Center. (Caitlan Butler/News-Times)


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