Tis the season for partisan rhetoric. “The other side is to blame for all that ails us” is as common a mantra in headlines, social media posts and sound bytes as mosquitoes in south Arkansas.
And while every unique political viewpoint will claim to have cornered the markets of progress and stability, a group here in Arkansas has given form to a perspective not entrenched with partisan loyalties.
The Under 40 Forum, held in early April here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, provided time, space and structure for many of the Natural State’s up-and-coming leaders to share their views on a topic that is pivotal to Arkansas’ future: How do we attract and retain younger talent?
The two-day summit was filled with, as Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller would put it, “a search for solutions.” Our participants, 30 in number and representative of the 40 Under 40 lists of both Arkansas Business and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, represented the spectrum of American politics. We had Republicans, Democrats, Independents and probably some third- (or fourth-) party supporters in the room. And while they didn’t check their political leanings at the door, they did check their political egos.
What resulted is a 23-page report, which you can view and download here, in which these Under 40 Leaders identify key opportunities and obstacles to Arkansas’ economic and civic success in the 21st century.
To the highlights!
- Arkansas is actually a great place to live, with relatively low cost of living and friendly residents.
- This is a state where motivated people can have a tremendous impact on their community, and they don’t necessarily have to have lived here all their lives to do so.
- We have good people, as evidenced by the quality of the Under 40 Leaders. Arkansas has both a long and recent history of producing people who show great ingenuity in business, industry, education and philanthropy.
- We have a habit of getting in our own way. Regardless of political affiliation, our Under 40 Leaders agreed that we have to move beyond a national perception that Arkansas is a place where discriminatory attitudes prevail. Beyond just a political debate, it has real effects on a business’s ability to recruit talent from out of state, especially millennials.
- “My hometown didn’t retain me” was something we heard from one Under 40 Leader and echoed by many more. The concept of small-town “brain drain” isn’t new, nor is it unique to Arkansas, but there may be new and innovative ways to address the problem, and Arkansas could be a leader in this area.
- Arkansas has to invest in more widespread broadband access. Without it, we’re missing out on a lot of economic opportunities, especially in, but not limited to, rural areas.
- We need universal pre-K options. We were a little surprised that this was one of the first topics the group jumped on. But they were almost all passionate about it. Younger talent equates to younger families, and younger families will generally only relocate somewhere with strong schools. That starts with offering pre-K opportunities.
- Parks & Tourism and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission should be closer allies. That’s not to imply they don’t get along now, but the group of Under 40 Leaders believe there could be more and better collaboration between Parks & Tourism, which handles relocation package development, and AEDC, which is responsible for bringing in more business to the state.
- Regionalism beyond northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Council was praised by our group for its good work in developing and branding NWAR. The Under 40 Leaders said similar or other regional councils could and should be established in other parts of the state. To accomplish this will require the engagement and motivation of business and other leaders in those regions.
There’s plenty more that’s covered in the report, so I encourage you to view the full document.
Suffice it to say, we’re rather proud of this project. Gov. Rockefeller was known for bringing the best and brightest in the state to Petit Jean Mountain to, again, “search for solutions.” That’s the core of our mission as an organization, and it seems this Under 40 Forum and the resulting report are exactly the kind of thing that would make Winthrop Rockefeller proud.
It also represents a great collaboration with the Clinton School of Public Service. The idea for the Under 40 Forum came directly from Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford, who shared his vision of an “80 Under 40” meeting last year.
The report is being distributed to political and business leaders throughout the state. If you have a question about the report or about the Under 40 Forum in general (next year’s Forum, which will engage the 2016 40 Under 40 lists, has been scheduled for March 2-3), contact Program Officer Cary Tyson at firstname.lastname@example.org.