LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Southwest Power Pool Inc.'s decision to keep its headquarters in Arkansas indicates that the state can support major employers with highly educated workforces, but the state needs to better train its young students for careers in technology, the company's top executive believes.
Nick Brown, SPP's president and chief executive officer, said he filled the Little Rock operations center with mostly local talent. But ensuring that trend remains will require Arkansas to better emphasize science, engineering and math to students — starting in late elementary school — in a way that encourages them, he said.
"When I grew up, myself and many of my classmates were intimidated," Brown, a Hope native, said during an interview with The Associated Press.
He recalled teachers telling him to look to his left and right, and saying one of those students wouldn't make it through the class. Brown said the opposite should happen: "We need to let students know that it's not difficult. It's actually fun."
Southwest Power Pool operates a grid that keeps electricity flowing in all or parts of Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. More than 550 people work at the company's $62 million headquarters, which opened in July, with average salaries of $85,500.
Brown said he focuses on hiring employees from the area because workers from out of state often leave for jobs back home.
SPP is among nine such organizations around he country that are federally mandated to help utilities work together to sustain power supplies and ensure adequate infrastructure while keeping prices competitive.
When the company was exploring construction of a new headquarters, its board looked at other cities, such as Dallas and Oklahoma City. Southwest Power Pool was operating out of several buildings in Little Rock when it decided to consolidate its home office.
Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Director Jay Chesshir said the competition wasn't driven by incentives, but rather the city's ability to show that universities could produce students with the skills the organization needed.
"Part of that is we are working with (the University of Arkansas at Little Rock) and other universities in the region, and within the entire state, to identify the specific skill sets needed and work to incorporate that within existing curriculum so that there would be a constant new source of talent coming available local," he said.
But the state did continue existing incentives for Southwest Power Pool, including a cash rebate equal to 3.9% of their new, annual payroll through 2015, said Arkansas Economic Development Commission spokesman Joe Holmes.
During his interview with AP last week, Brown also discussed what he sees next for Southwest Power Pool and the country's power industry.
He said ensuring adequate transmission lines is a long-term process, noting he recently returned from a groundbreaking for a new line at Medicine Lodge, Kan. He also believes the country needs "a true energy policy" that enables the U.S. to rely on a domestic supply.
Part of that would include renewal tax breaks for wind energy producers. Currently, wind-generated electricity comprises more than 10 percent of the juice on Southwest Power Pool's grid, with sources in western Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle.
In the new year, retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, who went to high school with Brown in Hope, will join SPP to be a liaison with legislatures and governor's offices in the nine states and deal with regulators.
"I'd seen a need in that area for many years," Brown said.
The executive said he would like to see utilities better emphasize the value consumers get from electricity. He noted that the average residential electric bill comes to about $5 a day, saying: "I don't have anything against Starbucks, but people will spend $5 on a cup of coffee, every day."