The Walton Family Foundation and the Excellerate Foundation are committing $3 million over three years to start a nonprofit that aims to retrain workers for jobs in high-demand industries, starting with health care.
Upskill NWA aims to enroll its first 100 participants by January and help them get education, industry licenses and certifications to fill thousands of health care job openings in the region, which aims to become a regional health care hub. It will target about 150,000 people in the area making $50,000 or less per year.
"Roughly two-thirds of the jobs in Northwest Arkansas pay $50,000 or less," Excellerate President and CEO Jeff Webster said. "That is approximately 150,000 people that are employed but do not have the income necessary to support living in a region where affordable housing, health care, and child care are hard to come by."
Webster announced the effort during the Northwest Arkansas Council annual meeting Thursday in Fayetteville. The project is based on a model first developed in Texas.
"Project Quest of San Antonio has proven that its model increases the annual income of participants dramatically on an ongoing basis while providing San Antonio with a 19:1 return on its investment," Webster said. "Its 25 years of success has led to the model's replication in four other areas of Texas and several other states."
Yee-Lin Lai, Walton Family Foundation's senior program officer, said Upskill NWA will provide students and workers "the skills they need to create pathways to high-potential, in-demand careers."
"Building an inclusive community means everyone who calls northwest Arkansas home benefits from the successes and opportunities the region has to offer," she said.
The Excellerate Foundation will run Upskill NWA within its own operations, offering day-to-day guidance and support to its staff, until it's ready to spin off into its own 501(c)(3) organization. Webster said during the meeting Thursday that the plan is for it to spin off in three years.
Upskill NWA also plans to add other sectors, including manufacturing and information technology, later. The first sector expansion is set to take place as early as 2023, and the third is set to take place as early as 2025.
Webster said some of the $1.57 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act that the state received could go toward helping people affected by the pandemic gain new skills through the nonprofit.
"The region's health care sector posted 5,000 job openings in the past 12 months, and the need will only grow as Northwest Arkansas continues to become a health care destination," said Larry Shackleford, president and CEO of Washington Regional Medical System, one of the six local health systems that are collaborating on Upskill NWA.
Mike Harvey, COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, called general demand for workers right now "insatiable." He touted the success of the council’s existing workforce development programming that targets "traditional learners": K-12 and post-secondary students.
Webster said NWA Upskill will serve people who originally didn't think college was right for them, want more from their careers, have discovered an interest in a new field, were told they had no options for an education or feel stuck in their current circumstances.
The new program will target nontraditional learners and provide assistance with tuition, supplies and fees and connect participants to additional services like rental assistance, child care and transportation. "Career navigators" will help keep participants on track while helping them develop skills such as persistence, time management, and financial literacy, the organizations said.
Education partners in the program include Northwest Arkansas Community College of Bentonville, Northwest Technical Institute of Springdale and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
A 2019 report by the Northwest Arkansas Council showed a need for more health care providers in northwest Arkansas. The council estimated that the area loses $1 billion in possible services every year.
The report said the health care industry in Benton and Washington counties generates $2.7 billion in activity annually, but that figure could be much higher. The region loses about $950 million annually in what is called outmigration — residents seeking medical care elsewhere. The report said northwest Arkansas must create 200 residency programs and add 6,000 jobs in the health care sector.
The Northwest Arkansas Council is a nonprofit made up of leaders from the business, academic and government sectors in the region. Gov. Asa Hutchinson was among the speakers at Thursday's meeting.
He said continuing the expansion of workforce training, especially by increasing available apprenticeships, throughout the state remains a priority and should continue.
Also at the meeting, Nate Green, communications director for the Northwest Arkansas Council, unveiled a new logo for the region that pays homage to its Life Works Here remote incentive program, which offered relocation incentives to people with certain in-demand skills.
(With reporting by Sarah Campbell-Miller.)