Adult Education Becomes Key to Arkansas Workforce

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, May. 7, 2018 12:00 am   6 min read

Ask Trenia Miles for success stories from a half-century of Arkansas adult education and she’ll fold her tall frame over a file cabinet, unlock it and pull out a bookful.

In “The Faces of Arkansas Adult Education,” there’s Stacey Bryant, who overcame youth health issues to get her Arkansas High School Diploma and become a Conway County 911 dispatcher.

And Heidi Rich, who quit the 11th grade but earned her diploma along with a welding certificate. Catherine Nicholson, born in 1924, earned her diploma at 49 and had a career at the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration. Stephan Holmes got his credential and joined the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office.

All four illustrate Miles’ passion as deputy director of the Department of Career Education, Adult Education Division: placing Arkansans in the workforce. “People think of GEDs, but that’s just the assessment, the test to get your Arkansas diploma,” she said. “Our mission as a whole is to provide a viable workforce for Arkansas employers.”

The state’s adult education programs do many things, Miles said, from bolstering English-language skills to teaching workplace behavior to helping prison inmates prepare for jobs on the outside.

Through initiatives like WAGE, the Workforce Alliance for Growth in the Economy, the state’s Adult Education Centers teach work readiness skills to the unemployed and underemployed, helping thousands become bank tellers, industrial employees and office workers. Last fiscal year, 2,000 Arkansans earned WAGE certificates.

“We teach employability skills, and we want to make sure people have soft skills,” Miles said, referring to workplace traits like punctuality, communication and good hygiene that can determine success or failure on the job. “We teach them how to do a job search, how to dress for interviews and how to conduct themselves at work. We’re also teaching digital literacy, which is a necessity in today’s technological world.”

Pipeline to Workforce
Still, public perception of adult education focuses on the GED, which technically stands for General Educational Development but is known as a general equivalency diploma, a testament that recipients have achieved high school-level academic skills.

Miles celebrates the real pride and personal fulfillment that flow from education, but her talk last week kept turning back to workforce results. “Most of these adult students want to go to work, to get into the workforce because they have families to feed,” Miles said. “While we have some students who will pursue higher education, it’s not a huge percentage.”

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In calendar 2017, 3,312 Arkansans completed all four parts of the GED test, with 2,885 passing and gaining their diplomas. The 87 percent passing rate for those who completed the test puts Arkansas well ahead of the curve; the national rate is 79 percent, according to figures from the GED Testing Service.

While Miles is proud of those numbers, she notes that some 470,000 Arkansas adults did not finish high school, and that budget constraints and human nature mean that many may never get a diploma.

“That number represents about 18 percent of the state’s adult population,” Miles said ruefully. That’s painfully close to the 21 percent of Arkansans 25 and over who have bachelor’s degrees, according to figures from the U.S. Census that place Arkansas near last among the 50 states in college completion.

For the 2016 fiscal year, Arkansas Adult Education served nearly 28,000 residents, including 3,600 learning English as a second language and 3,500 in correctional facilities or institutions.

“We provide workplace classes, with instructors going to companies like Tyson or Simmons Foods,” Miles said, naming two of the companies the state honored as Champions for the Arkansas Workforce in January (see sidebar). “Workers learn English or improve their skills, and this aids productivity and provides opportunities for promotion.”

Donny Epp, Simmons’ senior director of communications, said Arkansas needs more skilled workers. “That’s why Simmons supports the Arkansas Adult Education Division by volunteering to help with training programs and job fairs.” Simmons sees education as “key to building businesses, strengthening communities ... and providing a better-quality way of life,” he said.

Miles’ division has 18 employees, but its 36 service providers — community colleges, school districts and others at 52 sites statewide — employ about 335 part-time teachers and 116 full-timers.

“Our budget includes about $21 million in state money and another $8 million or so in federal funds for all our adult ed programs around the state,” Miles said. “We have not had much of an increase in state funding probably since the ’90s, so sometimes it’s hard to hold onto part-time teachers who want full-time work. But we’ve adjusted.”

The division has been pushing for more public awareness through a marketing campaign, “Move Ahead So Life Won’t Pass You By,” devised by The Design Group of Little Rock.

‘A Good Alternative’
Arkansas Adult Education, a division of the Department of Career Education, oversees 36 adult education programs, and in 2016 it celebrated its 50th anniversary. It has helped educate more than a million Arkansans since 1966, and on Wednesday it honored the top 25 scorers on the 2017 GED exam at the rotunda of the state Capitol.

The top scorer among 2,885 successes, Abbey Surom of Bentonville, prepared for the test at Northwest Arkansas Community College. “It’s a good alternative to high school if you finish it,” said Surom, who has enrolled at NWACC to study social sciences. “I like that they have an open schedule.”

Arkansas has students take a pretest before sitting for the GED exam, which is given regularly at sites around the state. Almost all adult education services are free to students and industries, but the GED test costs students $16 apiece. The state picks up the rest of the $80 fee.

GED enrollment fluctuates with economic conditions, but Miles said adult education is not just for the unemployed.

“Just as it has in the community colleges, GED enrollment has declined as more jobs have opened up,” she said. “But people with specialized certificates in areas like automotive and electrical are now making as much as people with bachelor’s degrees. They do very well.”

A study by the American Council on Education several years ago found that regular high school graduates make 3.5 percent more than GED holders. Nevertheless, GED recipients earn nearly 12 percent more than dropouts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a year ago that U.S. workers with a high school diploma or equivalent earn a median $692 a week, compared with $504 for employees without a credential. Bachelor’s graduates averaged $1,156.

Miles said adult education opens workers’ eyes to lucrative employment trends. “Some are so used to working odd-end jobs that they have no idea what’s new,” she said. Employers often don’t know that training partnerships can improve their current employees.

“We develop the talent they already have, and we try to get the word out to companies that these services are available for free. If they hire a student from adult education, we want them to know they’ll get a ‘quality product.’ With career-readiness training, productivity rises, staff turnover decreases and morale improves as workers see a way up,” she said. “In essence, we give hope.”

Partnerships in Education and Hiring
Adult education has many partners in Arkansas, Trenia Miles says, from businesses who hire graduates and use career-readiness classes to fellow state agencies working with Arkansans needing assistance.

Miles, the deputy director running the Arkansas Department of Career Education’s Adult Education Division, honored nearly 20 employers in January as Champions for Arkansas’ Workforce. The companies and business units were applauded for hiring adult ed graduates and training existing employees through state workplace education programs.

“The commitment from businesses and corporations around Arkansas to employ Adult Education graduates strengthens Arkansas’ economy and creates a more diverse and dynamic workforce,” said Charisse Childers, the department director and Miles’ boss. “This award highlights public-private partnerships that benefit all Arkansas communities.”

Miles called employer participation crucial. “The work that Adult Education centers do to help Arkansans be prepared for higher-wage and higher-skilled jobs would be pointless if employers were not committed to investing in their existing workforces or hiring Adult Ed graduates,” she said.

The honorees were Accent Plumbing of Harrison, American Tubing Inc. of Springdale, Bright Technology of Fayetteville, Brookridge Cove Rehabilitation & Care Center of Morrilton, Conway Corp., Galley Support Innovations of Sherwood, the Arkansas Kraft Division of Green Bay Packaging, the Harrison Police Department, KeyTronicEMS of Arkansas in Fayetteville, McCormick Works of Mulberry, Pepper Source Ltd. of Rogers and Van Buren, Rockin’ Baker Academy of Fayetteville, Schulze & Burch Biscuit Co. of Searcy, Simmons Prepared Foods of Siloam Springs, Superior Industries of Fayetteville, TEC Staffing of Conway and Tyson Foods’ units in Springdale, Waldron and North Little Rock.

The Adult Education Division also partners with the state Department of Human Services to educate recipients of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “We work with the Arkansas Works Medicaid program,” Miles said, to provide training for able-bodied recipients now required to work, volunteer or go to classes to keep their benefits. “About 50 percent of them already work; they just don’t make enough money to pay for health insurance,” she said. “But we’re working with DHS and the Department of Workforce Services to help people get the skills they need to be self-sufficient.”

Adult Ed’s work with the Medicaid program officially begins on June 1. “We don’t want these people to fall through the cracks.”



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