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Expect More, Create Change

Lisa owns her own business in Arkansas. At the recent Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit, chamber and business leaders discussed the most valuable traits a potential employee could have. Almost everyone summed up the most challenging traits to find in two words: “soft skills.”

Soft skills make a work environment function smoothly and effectively. Time management, effective communication, flexibility, problem-solving and the ability to perform under pressure are a few of the soft skills employers consider important for success. And for every employer at Lisa’s table these skills were in high demand but in limited supply.

Lisa and other employers wonder who is responsible for developing soft skills. Who has not pointed fingers at employees, students, parents or teachers and asked who dropped the ball on getting Arkansans ready to work? We need to expect more of employees. We also need to expect more of ourselves. We have to stop playing the blame game.

It’s time to create change. We know Arkansans are motivated and hard-working. We have the twelfth lowest unemployment rate in the country. We also know hard-working people sometimes get knocked down by life. One of Lisa’s employees is sometimes late because his car constantly needs repairs. One of her new hires struggles because he cannot communicate professionally. A student in Lisa’s community has dropped out of college because she can’t find child care. One in five Arkansans start college but don’t earn a degree. The majority of those leave school to support their families.

“If you’re worried about what you’re going to eat, are you going to be able to pay your rent? If you don’t have your basic needs met, the idea of taking on another stressor is really way too much for someone to absorb,” says Darren Jones, vice chancellor at University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton.

To equip people with the tools they need to overcome challenges, develop soft skills and get the training they need, “One of the best models we have is the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI),” says Jones. CPI provides comprehensive academic and support services to low-skilled individuals to acquire the degree and/or credentials required to obtain and retain jobs in high-demand, high-wage industries.

Each student is assigned a tutor and counselor trained to identify and appreciate the logistical problems some students face, such as access to reliable transportation and securing quality child care. The counselor also coaches students on soft skills while they earn their certificates and degrees. And it works. Students in  CPI graduate at double the average rate and are three times more likely to earn technical certificates compared to other community college students.

“If any of us could ever take CPI and scale it to the larger population, we could solve the education-poverty issue,” Jones says.

One company has taken on this challenge and applied solutions to its workforce pipeline. Dassault Falcon Jet (DFJ) was struggling to get enough skilled workers for cabinetry and upholstery positions. People who applied didn’t always have the technical skills they needed, and they struggled with showing up on time and working well with others.

It was time to create change. DFJ formed a partnership with Pulaski Technical College (PTC) and Goodwill Industries of Arkansas to create Almost Qualified. DFJ supplied materials and covered costs for hard and soft skills training. PTC designed classroom experiences that complemented DFJ’s onsite training. Goodwill was charged with finance and personal skills coaching. Together, these organizations helped individuals build the self-sufficiency they needed to be ready for financial, family and life challenges and perform effectively on the job.

According to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s (WRF) report Expect More Arkansas: Our Jobs, Our Future, there are 1.6 million jobs in Arkansas now, and a half million more coming in the next decade. The bad news is 70 percent of the jobs currently available require a high school diploma or less. More Arkansans have to earn certificates or degrees after high school. If we don’t, the majority of jobs in Arkansas’ future will continue to be low-skill and provide low wages.

The good news is that students and workers succeed in programs like CPI and Almost Qualified. Along the way they gain the skills and grit they need to succeed. With technical training and soft-skill development, they are equipped to be lifelong learners who are able to prepare themselves for the jobs of tomorrow.

WRF launched Expect More Arkansas because we believe that creating more innovative initiatives like CPI and Almost Qualified will build a stronger workforce in Arkansas. With the right technical training and soft-skill development, more Arkansans will have the skills that businesses like Lisa’s need to thrive.

Learn more and join the Expect More movement at expectmorenow.org.