Michael Paladino knows firsthand how tough the environment is for digital technology companies.
It’s not hard to find success; Paladino is the co-founder and chief technology officer of RevUnit of Bentonville, which has offices in Las Vegas, Dallas and St. Louis. But Paladino and other executives in the digital world have run into a different sort of problem: finding employable candidates for the open jobs they have.
It’s an obstacle not just in computers but in the health care and manufacturing industries, northwest Arkansas employers and officials say. The solution is getting more students and older job changers on new career paths, but that is a complicated process with many moving parts.
For Paladino, it’s front and center every day. His 35-person shop has three openings, meaning he’s understaffed by nearly 9 percent.
Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 1 million unfilled computer-related jobs by the year 2020. Paladino is a big fan of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s lead passing legislation that requires state high schools to offer computer science classes to interested students, and he believes that will have a long-term effect on the industry.
Statewide, computer “boot camps” have popped up as companies try to promote and produce future computer science employees. Conway has the Arkansas Coding Academy, a collaboration between the University of Central Arkansas, the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce and business partners that include Metova.
RevUnit is one of 12 digital companies in northwest Arkansas that partnered with the University of Arkansas Global Campus to start an IT Readiness program. Two of RevUnit’s computer programmers teach courses on campus.
“It seems like there are more kids and educators getting exposure to computer science,” Paladino said. “That has been a really strong effort that is going to continue to pay dividends over the next few years. I think there is definitely a multipronged approach. Creating the pipeline of new talent is obviously very important.
“What has happened over the last few years nationwide is the rise of these boot camps and the recognition that IT is a field that doesn’t necessarily need a four-year degree. It allows for someone who is straight out of HS or a career changer to go into that field.”
Health Care Jobs
Workforce development is a key component of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s three-year strategic plan developed in 2015. Council Interim CEO Mike Harvey said area businesses are feeling the pinch of a growing economy but a smaller pool of skilled laborers.
“It’s job No. 1 for the council right now because our labor market is super tight in some of these demand occupations,” Harvey said. “It’s stifling our local businesses and our ability to grow. When you get to this stage, the need is really acute. It’s a priority for us; it’s a priority for a lot of our schools.”
The council recently held a retreat to develop ideas for programs at the high school level. Many good entry-level jobs in the health care industry, for example, do not require a four-year or even a two-year college degree, Harvey said.
Part of the work is informational: letting students (and their parents) know of the opportunities that exist.
“We’re really trying to build out an infrastructure for the secondary level to seed these postsecondary programs or for kids to actually be work-ready on Day One out of high school to align with the needs of northwest Arkansas,” Harvey said. “How do you build capacity? How do you get kids interested? That’s a sell job to the kid, the parents and the teachers. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Harvey said entry-level health care jobs — such as a certified nursing assistant — require certification rather than a degree. They’re decent-paying jobs, above minimum wage, and give the job holders a health care “in” while helping fill the labor pool.
“Health care has a pretty nice career ladder,” Harvey said. “Those are the things we’re trying to get into quickly and cheaply, relatively, at the secondary and postsecondary level. Hopefully they will pique a kid’s interest in ‘that sounds like something I’d like to pursue.’”
In 2005, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education started its Career Pathways Initiative, a program that has evolved to include 22 two-year colleges in the state. The program researches the state’s job needs and then trains students for those jobs.
Program Director Karon Rosa said the typical CPI student is a 31-year-old mother with few or no college credits who is stuck in a low-paying job. The student may have good potential to train for a better-paying job but not the means.
“One of the students said to me, ‘The arithmetic of life just doesn’t work for poor people,’” Rosa said. “You can’t support a family on minimum wage, and they were invisible to the [college] presidents. The people in their communities who will make better students and better employees are the 31-year-olds.”
Rosa said the program has paid for 30,000 students to earn more than 33,000 certificates or two-year degrees since 2005 with a student retention rate of nearly 70 percent. Rosa said the key to the program is a Venn diagram assessment to best determine the match between how what the student can or wants to do pairs with good-paying job needs.
The UA’s Global Campus does assessments to determine what programs are needed to fill needs. Last year, it started a truck-driving training program; this year it paired with tech partners to start IT Readiness, which kicked off with 30 students in three different classes.
“We prioritize based on industry demand and applicant interest as far as what programs we were going to offer first,” said Jamie Loftin, Global Campus’ assistant vice provost for distance education administration. “The Global Campus goes to great lengths to identify and address the workforce skill gap, and then we develop programs to fill those gaps. Gone are the days where you put programs out there that you’re interested in or think are good topics.”
Paladino said the Global Campus pursued the IT program exactly the right way: by listening to what tech companies needed and planning accordingly. Having tech professionals teach the classes helps bring real-world expertise to the classroom, which could make on-the-job transition easier.
“I think we continue to build supply,” Paladino said. “I think we continue to have programs like Bentonville Ignite and the higher education levels continue to build pipelines and engage with employers. We engage with those students earlier in the process. By the time they’re ready to work, we’ve already been working with them while they’re training.”