Industrial tech student receives RISA scholarship

Joseph Howard, an industrial technology student, was awarded a $500 scholarship from the Regional Industrial Safety Alliance.

By Andrea Bruner

Joseph Howard wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, but what he did know was that he liked working with metal – so much in fact that he wanted to put his skills to good use, even if they were only used for a hobby, not a career.

Howard found his fit in the industrial technology program at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville and was recently awarded a $500 scholarship from the Regional Industrial Safety Alliance, which was started in Independence County 20 years ago.

Howard's family had been stationed in Nebraska for 10 years before they moved to Arkansas last year, and Howard knew he did not want to follow his father into the military.

So he enrolled at UACCB with the thought of going into agriculture and eventually become a forest ranger.

“Living in the woods put a damper on that career option,” he said, “as I found out that as much as I enjoy gardening and looking at the woods, traipsing around them was not something I would see myself doing every day for the next 20 odd years.”

Howard said what he really wanted to do was to be a blacksmith but didn't think that it would be anything other than a hobby for him. Howard entered the welding program at UACCB thinking that he would at least gain skills he could use within his hobby of working with metal.

But what he found was that he truly enjoyed welding and began to entertain the idea of obtaining a degree – and hopefully a career – in industrial technology.

“Something about taking two pieces of metal and sticking them together really appealed to me,” Howard said.

He advanced fairly quickly in the first class and credits the instructors at UACCB for their help. After a few weeks in the class, he went to his advisor and changed his degree plan.

UACCB offers certificates of proficiency and technical certificates in programs such as welding and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), providing students with the general knowledge and technical expertise necessary for area industries. In the Little Rock, Memphis and Springfield areas, a skilled technician can start out with a salary range of $38,000. 

One component of the necessary skills that technicians need is safety knowledge, and that is where RISA has stepped in. A group of companies in Independence and Jackson counties interested in promoting safety began meeting to share safety information and resources, thus forming the alliance in 1999. Each RISA member took a turn hosting a meeting of the group at its plant site. Current RISA members include Intimidator Group, Entergy, Unifirst, Bad Boy Mowers, Peco Foods, FutureFuel Chemical Co., Arkansas Steel, LaCroix Precision Optics and Custom Craft Poultry.

RISA also teams up with the Arkansas Department of Labor to present the annual Workers' Safety Conference, which was held Sept. 26 on the UACCB campus. Some topics included defusing violence in the workplace, OSHA's top 10 most cited hazards in general industries in Arkansas, hazard recognition, CPR/first aid, and more. This year's event drew 170 registered attendees, including students enrolled in the industrial technology program at UACCB.

“We were excited to get those industrial tech students in there because we do feel like that is our future workforce,” explained Wiley Osborn, director of human resources at Intimidator. “If we can start educating people on safety, then by the time they make it to us (as employers), they will already have a baseline of what's expected and of some safety knowledge.”

As RISA has grown, members have discussed ways to educate and enhance safety among the workforce, including the plan to offer a scholarship. Osborn said they approached UACCB about creating an endowment that would perpetually fund a scholarship for industrial tech students and continue to make an impact on the community.

To be eligible for consideration, students had to submit a 500-word essay in written or video form explaining why they chose a degree in an industrial technology field. Also considered were grade point average, courses the students were enrolled in, and completion rate.

Gone are the days, at least for the most part, of employers hiring someone who had learned to weld at home, with no formal education to speak of. Osborn said last year Intimidator started requiring welding certifications for its welders, and he sees the industries and schools working together to bridge the gap in workforce development. He said he makes trips to schools to meet with students and faculty about the needs of employers and perhaps even spark an interest in future potential workers. Employers are looking for the next pool of workers in a variety of fields, from product R&D (research and development), design, machining, and more.

“People don't know the opportunities that are available here,” Osborn said. “And thanks to concurrent programs like the one at UACCB, now we see so many kids come out of high school with their certifications. We have high school students taking concurrent classes at UACCB so that by the time they graduate, they're ready to come to work.”

Zach Harber, director of career and technical education at UACCB, agrees. Harber said the field of industrial technology has changed dramatically and continues to use engineering to make production faster, cleaner and more efficient.

“The greatest change is how complex the industrial environment has become,” Harber said. “Through advanced automation and how technical every step of a manufacturing process has become, education is critical to provide a context as to how the technical skills will be applied.”

Osborn said RISA is interested in recruiting more members from nearby communities. Anyone interested in more information may contact Linda Stewart, health and safety manager at Intimidator Group and current RISA chair, at linda.stewart@intimidatorutv.com.