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Career Realignment: Report Calls for Fine-Tuning Workforce Training Programs in NWALock Icon

5 min read

A study by the Walton Family Foundation found that northwest Arkansas’ career and technical education programs must be fine-tuned to better suit the area’s workforce needs.

The final report, which is due out in the next few weeks, said that many of the programs taken by high school students are in career pathways that are not the region’s high priorities. The report’s executive summary, which was provided to Arkansas Business, showed that a majority of the pathways completed by students — who can earn high school and college credit and gain work experience — were in agriculture-related fields the past three years.

Pathway completion refers to a student who either earned an industry certification, postsecondary credit or has enrolled in a postsecondary educational program.

The total number of completions for agriculture-related career pathways, which make up the top five completed pathways, was more than 12,000.


That is despite a projected growth of just 180 jobs in the region during the next five years, according to the Walton Family Foundation. Agriculture jobs account for just 1.2% of the total jobs in northwest Arkansas.

“The sectors the students are working in aren’t aligned with where the jobs are when they graduate,” said Katherine Robinson, program officer with the Walton Family Foundation. “That is a significant misalignment.”

The Walton Family Foundation research found greater needs in other areas. Health care will see a growth of more than 3,600 jobs during the next five years, followed by office management, with nearly 2,500, and manufacturing, with more than 2,100.

Career and Technical Education
Top 10 completed CTE pathways in northwest Arkansas











Agricultural Power





Animal Systems





Plant Systems





Natural Resources





Office Administration




















Family & Consumer Sciences





Source: Walton Family Foundation


The good news is that the report shows where the opportunity for growth is. A properly aligned career pathway system can provide students with training for good-paying jobs, while companies get the benefit of having a homegrown, better-prepared workforce.

“Now that we have more data and more clarity, it gives us more information on what the problem is,” Robinson said. “It is really about getting people to come together to build out programs in these areas that we have identified our workforce needs and to make sure they are high quality.”

Ignite Stands Out

Robinson said the Walton Family Foundation researched other regions of the country that have had success building CTE programs for its K-12 students, but a standout example is just down the road from the foundation’s Bentonville headquarters.

In 2015, the Bentonville School District started its Ignite program with one career pathway in technology with 16 students. Eight years later, Ignite offers nine pathways and has 520 students in the program; all are high school juniors or seniors in the school district.


Jessica Imel, director of the Bentonville School District’s Ignite program: “The community was very receptive to this.”
Jessica Imel, director of the Bentonville School District’s Ignite program: “The community was very receptive to this.” (Provided)


“We just wanted to see if this would work,” said Jessica Imel, who is in her first year as the director of Ignite after six years as an instructor. “Can we get these meaningful learning experiences for the students? It did work. The community was very receptive to this.”


Ignite now offers pathways in tracks ranging from aviation to construction management to global business to the culinary arts. Imel said each pathway offered was painstakingly researched to make sure it was something that the business community of northwest Arkansas needed.

Another important qualifier was picking pathways that will also be of interest to students, Imel said.

“The biggest thing for us is the partnership with the community,” Imel said. “The whole goal is for every student at Ignite to have a meaningful work experience as part of their experience in the program.

“What’s neat about our educational philosophy and how we run this is it needs to be tailored to the community that it is in. The way Ignite operates is perfect for northwest Arkansas.”

Robinson is an admirer of Bentonville’s Ignite program and envisions a similar but much larger-scaled version for the entire region. She said other school districts have promising CTE programs but believes a cohesive approach on a large scale would be most beneficial.

“How do we take programs like that and make them more accessible to more students where they are getting all those highly valuable components?” Robinson said. “We see a lot of siloed work happening even in the bright spots. We want a regional approach.”

Community Involvement

Devising and implementing a region-wide CTE plan is challenging, but at least the stakeholders in northwest Arkansas are on board.

The business community wants a better-prepared local workforce, and the schools and other educational entities want to give students better opportunities. Imel said when she first began teaching a global business class at Ignite, an Arvest Bank branch provided space for her students for the 2½ hours a day she had them.

Ignite is now headquartered in a 9,000-SF building and has satellite facilities, as well, but Imel said those early days showed her the community’s support for CTE programs.

“That was a game-changer,” Imel said. “It helped us communicate to the students this professional expectation and having access to the network of people in the building.”


The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization of business, political and academic leaders, has long pushed for more workforce development programs. It hired Joe Rollins in 2018 as its director of workforce development.

“We have a strong business environment, great quality of life, and a pipeline of talent and training to help make our companies successful,” Rollins said. “Those needs are continually changing, and our career and technical training needs must continue to evolve accordingly. Our schools understand that wholeheartedly and are eager to offer our students the best programming possible.

“The information shared in this report will fuel their work moving forward as we address growing fields, those that need adjustment, and how we can help students make meaningful career decisions and connections.”

Robinson said CTE expansion is an easy sell. “The really good news here is people are supportive of this work,” Robinson said. “There is broad support from schools, from students, from industry partners around wanting to see better alignment and recognizing the problem. We are positioned really well to take the next steps to building out some things that are going to serve the students and serve the region well.”

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