We like to say it every day: Fort Smith is open for business.

We have an impressive list of businesses that have chosen to make the community their home. All share an abundant love for the state of Arkansas and Fort Smith and have shown that by keeping their capital investments and business focus on the area.

We offer abundant resources to potential companies of every size. We have a renewed focus on “quality of place” in the region and it shows, from a revitalized downtown to a growing Chaffee Crossing and expansion in nearly all parts of the region. Companies often look to what a community can provide for work-life balance and Fort Smith is improving those options at every turn.

But, like much of the country, Fort Smith faces a challenge in ensuring that companies have the workforce and talent to meet the needs of 21st century manufacturing, information technology and healthcare. How do we make sure that students coming out of K-12 have both a path for moving into higher education as well a path for wanting to enter the workforce now?

More than two years ago, leaders from across the region comprised of manufacturing, higher education, public schools, health care, information technology and other vital parts of our economy, began meeting to map out our strategy. Knowing that the communities who embraced these changes first would be the most successful, we embarked on a bold path.

The list of factors to consider is varied; an aging workforce, low unemployment, new technology and skill-set needs, and career and workforce training that lacks real-world learning opportunities. We want to make sure as a community that we create an educational environment focused on preparing students either for a pathway to enter the workforce with a certificate or preparing them for higher education. Both solutions are beneficial and rewarding and unique to each student’s plans and aspirations.

The team in Fort Smith is partnering with our local public and private schools and university systems to aggressively rethink the way we are currently approaching recruitment and career and technical education. This new way of thinking will result in a pipeline of technically skilled talent/students being developed for the future operations of our local businesses and industries. This new approach will also include more state-of-the-art technology and equipment and more work-based learning opportunities and youth apprenticeships for local career and technical education students to better prepare them for their career and to complement their classroom education.

The Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce has led the way by creating a workforce development position created to strengthen ties between educational institutions and the business community. That individual is tasked with helping to pave the road to better prepare students for careers and meet the needs of the workforce.

In addition to working across the region to secure grant money to help focus on expanding workforce initiatives in the area, we’ve partnered with Fort Smith Public Schools and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and helped identify and secure a facility that will ultimately be turned into a Career and Technology Center where students from across the region can interact, learn and prepare for the rewarding career in our local economy.

As students begin to return to school this month and re-engage with educators and mentors, consider the paths and options available to them. Whether it’s higher education or using their skills and knowledge to move directly into a career, Fort Smith has recognized the challenges our students and businesses face and is working to help lead the way in workforce development.

Tim Allen is the president and CEO of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.