Newport’s Iron Mountain Train Depot still has its century-old ticket window, but instead of sending railroad passengers on their way, the refurbished station will soon put Arkansans on a track to better careers.
IT apprentices will start training there in a few days, mastering skills coveted by local businesses that are setting the curriculum. The trainees’ new jobs will also be “pandemic-resistant,” a requirement of government grants aiding the project.
“A depot is never your final destination; it’s a place you pass through to get to where you’re going,” Newport Economic Development chief Jon Chadwell said last week. He was leading visitors through the 1915 vintage rail station on Front Street, which Chadwell has refitted as a high-tech training center, Newport’s Tech Depot IT Apprenticeship Academy.
“We thought it was appropriate to call it the Tech Depot, because students can start on their way to a new career,” Chadwell said.
The old Missouri Pacific station won’t even be the final stop for the Apprenticeship Academy, a partnership between the Newport Economic Development Commission, Arkansas State University-Newport and the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences.
The academy won a $2.5 million federal grant in October and will break ground early next year on a $3.1 million, 12,000-SF state-of-the-art facility on Hazel Street adjacent to the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce. The Development Commission, which has a $750,000 annual budget funded by a 0.5% local sales tax, will provide a $625,000 match for the new facility, a hub for top-of-the-line tech and internet capabilities.
Keeping Graduates at Home
“It’s going to be tremendous,” Newport Mayor David Stewart said. “It’s going to give businesses the skilled employees they need and get young folks to maybe graduate high school and stay here. And it’s good to get people in to see the town from other communities. Anytime we can get someone to come here to work, or to stay here with a good job, it’s a plus.”
Chadwell came up with the IT training idea in brainstorming sessions with G.B. Cazes, principal of the Emory Group of Conway, which is consulting on plans to turn most of the town’s bereft old business district into an IT and computer hub, the Newport Downtown Technology Park. Apprenticeship trainees had DTech and Tech Depot ballcaps waiting for them on desks in the depot’s classroom.
Chadwell is hashing out the new building’s engineering specifications with Miller-Newell Engineers Inc. of Newport, and hopes to have bids out for general contracting by early next year for a construction start sometime in February.
He expects the new headquarters to be completed in 18 to 24 months, with apprenticeship training rooms, an IT coworking space and an incubator for entrepreneurs, shared office space for companies vested in the facility, and an apprenticeship testing center. The facility, one of several around the state initiated by the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences during the past year, “will give our citizens access to the training and skills to work with any company in the world, and maybe to work remotely and continue to live and raise their families here,” Mayor Stewart said.
The grant money facilitated “another huge step forward for apprenticeship programs in Arkansas,” said Bill Yoder, executive director of the ACDS. “We have experience in IT and apprenticeships, and ASU-Newport has experience in technical curriculum development and delivery, and now with this facility we will have all the tools for world-class IT training in Newport, Arkansas.” The ACDS will take the lead in getting the word out to industry and in matching companies with apprentices.
Companies Get on Board
While the new building is in planning and construction, the Tech Depot will start training its first class, with about 14 apprentices, but that roster is expected to grow quickly to about 40 trainees headed for jobs at companies in Newport, Batesville and Jonesboro.
By the end of its third year, program planners expect to serve about 100 apprentices every six months, with companies needing IT workers notifying the ACDS. Individuals seeking IT careers can also add their names to a pool of apprenticeship candidates at techdepotnow.com.
At the old rail station, early trainees will find a well-appointed classroom, a student lounge, coworking space and wireless internet speeds of 500 megabits per second for downloading and 300 megabits per second for uploads, service provided by Ritter Communications of Jonesboro, which is participating in the program. “By March of next year, we’ll have 1 gigabit down and 1 up, with five static IP addresses. It’s going to be really robust, and that’s what we’ll have in the new building, too,” Chadwell said.
Hytrol Conveyor Co. of Jonesboro and Roach Conveyors of Paragould have secured spaces for apprentices in the first wave, along with Farmers Electric Cooperative Corp. of Newport. Other businesses are poised to announce their involvement. The companies seeking to fill positions will set the training parameters for the apprentices, and will pay them and provide benefits. The jobs will be waiting for them upon graduation.
“The state has experienced significant growth in registered apprenticeships since 2015 with a focus on increasing opportunities in nontraditional sectors such as manufacturing and information technology,” said Cody Waits, director of the Office of Skills Development for the Arkansas Department of Commerce. “For the most part, the construction trades are still the leader in the overall number of [registered apprenticeship] participants and has dominated this arena in Arkansas as well as the rest of the country.” But federal efforts to expand apprenticeship programs have led to significant investment in training for other job areas “such as manufacturing, IT, and health care, just to name a few.”
The state has gone from 90 RA programs to 140 in all the trades, and has seen corresponding growth in participation that Waits called encouraging. “The active apprentice number has almost doubled, from approximately 3,500 in 2015 to over 6,500 in 2020,” Waits told Arkansas Business via email. “The number of manufacturing RA programs has gone from three to 17 and the number of IT programs has increased from two to 12.” The state hopes to have 10,000 total apprentices by January 2023.
Newport’s federal grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, “came out of the CARES Act funding,” Chadwell said, referring to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act, the economic stimulus passed in March. “It was money to set up workforce training centers for careers that are pandemic-resistant. During the pandemic, that is needed more than ever, because everybody’s working from home and everybody’s having issues.”
‘For All of Northeast Arkansas’
The grant possibility came up after Gov. Asa Hutchinson had already dedicated the refurbished depot in September. Chadwell’s office promptly worked up a grant proposal with the White River Planning & Development District’s grant-writing team. The grant announcement opened up the possibility of the new training center.
ASU-Newport Chancellor Sandra Massey said in a statement that the university was proud to provide instruction for the program, not just for Newport’s sake, “but for all of northeast Arkansas.”
The Arkansas Center for Data Sciences established its first IT apprentice center in Little Rock in 2018 and launched a northwest Arkansas program with the support of 30 companies in September 2019 at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s office in Springdale. A satellite of the Little Rock center has also taken flight in Conway. The apprenticeships are all part of the governor’s dream of making Arkansas a global technology center.
“We’ve just announced the Tech Depot, but we’ve already had three companies contact us from out of the blue,” Chadwell said. “They wanted to visit and see the opportunities that lie ahead for IT in Jackson County.”