A centerpiece of Northwest Arkansas Community College’s new Washington County campus is a nursing simulation lab that features patient mannequins and classroom space.
Carla Boyd, NWACC’s nursing program director, is understandably pleased with the new digs, which will allow the college to expand its nursing enrollment from 40 to 80 a year. Still, Boyd said ruefully, that is just a drop in the bucket to what northwest Arkansas’ employers are demanding.
It’s not just nursing. Northwest Arkansas continues to grow in population while its unemployment rate remains low, leading to a labor crunch among the area’s businesses.
The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization composed of the area’s education, business and community leaders, has been working to improve the employee pipeline through targeted programs. The expansion of NWACC’s nursing program is one such effort, while the University of Arkansas Global Campus’ IT Readiness Program is another.
“Health care and IT are the two fastest-growing jobs, generally speaking,” said Mike Harvey, COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “For us, those are two really important areas that we are trying to supply the talent they need. It is a challenge because we are growing so fast it is hard to keep up.”
NWACC’s nursing program upped its enrollment from 32 to 40 students in recent years. The Washington County Center, a 38,000-SF building in Springdale adjacent to Arvest Ballpark, will consolidate all of NWACC’s previously scattered classrooms under one roof when it opens in the spring.
Boyd said she will hire two additional faculty members who, combined with existing faculty, will handle the increase in nursing enrollment to 80.
“We need teachers; we need space,” Boyd said. “This is a great new wonderful space, but to take more than what we are taking now, it has to be even bigger.”
Rx for Health Care
Boyd said budget considerations will limit how big NWACC’s nursing program can get, because demand is strong from both students and potential employers.
Northwest Arkansas is seeing a robust expansion of health care facilities. A stone’s throw from NWACC’s Washington County Center is Arkansas Children’s Northwest, which opened in 2018; Mercy Hospital in Rogers and Washington Regional in Fayetteville have also expanded.
“I can’t tell you exactly how big [the demand] is, but I can tell you that every hospital we go to they all tell us ‘We need your nurses, we need your nurses, we need your nurses,’” Boyd said. “We have had a 100% job placement rate for the last three or four years.”
Boyd would love to provide nurses, but finding instructors for the students is difficult. NWACC gets hundreds of student applications a year but, until the expansion, only took 40.
“It’s horrible — we have had 156 students apply for 40 positions and that is heartbreaking,” Boyd said. “To be honest, nursing educators can go work in a hospital anywhere and double their salary, easy.”
The health care crunch isn’t just about nurses. The state needs more candidates from top to bottom, as well as residencies for doctors, who tend to be more inclined to stay in the state where they did their training.
Harvey said nursing is the biggest need, however, and fortunately the region had the infrastructure in place, even if it is not ready for the number that northwest Arkansas requires. Expanding a nursing program is easier than creating one from scratch.
“It has been a little bit slow going because of the need for instructors,” Harvey said. “Cultivation-wise for health care, we were geared and ready to roll with those. They were in place. It was just a matter of expanding those.”
Boyd said the typical NWACC nursing student is 30 years or older and from Arkansas. The college offers online programs to certify a student going from licensed practical nurse or paramedic to a registered nurse, and NWACC offers an associate nursing degree.
Those qualifications would allow a graduate to get an entry-level nursing position and the flexibility to continue his or her education with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
“We are very proud of our nurses; we get tons of compliments from every facility up here,” Boyd said.
“We did reach out to all the facilities and the other schools: ‘This is what we are looking at.’ We had no one say anything negative. They were all like, ‘Do it.’”
The IT Factor
The information technology field is more diverse, with hundreds of jobs from entry level to top-end programming.
Harvey said the region needs to hire about 650 IT workers every year. He said the tight local supply of skilled workers has “throttled” the otherwise robust northwest Arkansas economy and doesn’t bode well for the long term if the area can’t start providing the needed workers.
“It is critical for us to help supply this talent locally,” Harvey said. “You can’t outsource plumbing, but you can outsource this [IT] work. And if this is the work that is going to dominate the next 25 years, then it is a scary proposition if we can’t supply the talent for our employers. They will find the talent somewhere else.”
The Northwest Arkansas Council has a new initiative attempting to identify young students with IT interests or skills and then let them know what learning paths and jobs are out there for them. Tara Dryer said hundreds of graduates of the Global Campus’ IT program over the past four years have found jobs, and the Global Campus is teaming with the council and the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences on an apprentice program for 14 students.
The students would take classes two days a week at the Global Campus and then work with participating businesses three days a week, said Dryer, the Global Campus’ director of training, corporate development and academic outreach. A grant defrays the costs of the training and education.
The program has a variety of students, Dryer said. Some are recent high school graduates and some are professionals who had decided to change their occupation after years in the workforce.
The partnership and coordination with the council and local businesses mean the students are learning what their future employers need them to learn.
“We are not only trying to make a dent in entry-level positions but also help people in technology upscale in their careers,” Dryer said. “It has all been industry-led that provides feedback to us and tells us what type of training is needed. They are the ones who are hiring our students and know what they need to learn to be hired.”