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NWA Job Market Calling for Soft Skills

6 min read

The Northwest Arkansas Council recently released a new three-year strategic plan for the region that concentrates a great deal on workforce management.

Mike Harvey, the COO of the council, based in Springdale, said job growth in the area is impressive but work has to be done to help today’s students prepare for tomorrow’s jobs. It’s a sentiment echoed by other experts in the economic field.

“It’s mismatched because what we have is a lot of jobs created that people aren’t trained to do,” Harvey said. “Getting that aligned is one of our main goals.”

Harvey and the council are not alone in that quest. Harvey is a frequent guest speaker at workshops held by the Northwest Arkansas P-20 Task Force, a group that was formed in 2013 to help bring uniformity to education from the preschool to post-graduate level.

Elizabeth Smith, the director of the Education Renewal Zone at the University of Arkansas, is one of the co-leaders of P-20 along with Marcia Sanders of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative in Farmington. Smith said the group’s early work concentrated on improving the educational development of future job seekers.

The group realized that that was only half the answer.

“We were missing a piece: business and industry,” Smith said. “We wanted to focus on what students did after high school and after college.”

This past summer, P-20 held a meeting with educators and executives with several local businesses, including J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell and Wal-Mart Stores of Bentonville. Smith said the members of her group expected the business executives to tell them that today’s job seekers were lacking in specific skills.

“We expected them to say they needed training in a skill,” Smith said. “They said they wanted people with soft skills. They said, ‘We need them to show up on time; we need them to pass a drug test; we need them to work hard.’ They wanted them to be reliable and teachable.”

That got the P-20 group to look at the soft skill set employers seek, things such as work ethic, problem solving, communication skills and ability to work on a team. Smith said Common Core standards require some of that in public schools.

“One solution is equipping students with soft skills so they can do anything,” Smith said. “Mike [Harvey] said we are educating students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Those soft skills will be helpful no matter what job they go into. We want our students to be prepared for life.”

Harvey joked that in his years in economic development, he has had more than his share of run-ins with educators who disagreed with his perceived interference in their realm. He said northwest Arkansas schools have been very receptive to the new ideas of preparing students with different skills and different options after high school.

“In two years there isn’t going to be a lot of what we’ve talked about that’s not offered in northwest Arkansas,” Harvey said. “It’s a marketing issue. We need to sell [that] there are [non-college] opportunities to students and parents and educators, who come from a college mindset. I’ve seen a desire to listen and adapt.”

‘Missing Something’

The workforce was also part of Kathy Deck’s presentation at the 21st annual Business Forecast Luncheon on Jan. 30 at the Hammons Convention Center in Rogers. Deck, director of the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, said every employer tells her the lack of sufficient skilled labor is concerning.

“Employers would like to have ready-trained employment,” Deck said. “That is not an unreasonable thing for them to want. This is not a workforce they see coming out of public schools, colleges and community colleges. The workforce that exists is missing something. Some of that is educational institutions are not changing to the environment.”

That is what Harvey, Smith and local chambers of commerce would like to correct. Perry Webb, president and CEO of the Springdale chamber, said he recently learned Springdale Har-Ber High School has a program that helps students get internships with local electrician companies.

Smith said Gravette High School has a partnership with Northwest Arkansas Community College to have a HVAC class taught at the school. Webb said he plans to open a staff position for workforce issues so the chamber can act as a “conduit” between employers and educators.

“It’s a matter of having resources to align companies with the program,” Webb said. “It’s not that Springdale schools weren’t doing a great job. Industry doesn’t know about it, and schools don’t know industry needs. Our goal would be to find islands of success and get people in the room and figure out how to expand it.”

Smith said P-20 offers workshops and professional training to help school counselors learn how to adapt to the changing needs of industry. Webb wants to develop some mentoring programs to help with the issue.

“Industry says this is what we need and we can have the counselors there to hear it,” Webb said. “That has never happened.”

Training That’s Not College

Harvey said another possible solution involves a bit of a sacred cow. There are many good job opportunities that don’t require a college education but do require training.

Harvey made it clear he was not going to tell people to not go to college but thinks some would be better served by knowing all the options available to them. There are certain industries — diesel mechanics, for example — that require training but not a college degree.

Watch television for any amount of time and you’ll notice the commercials for schools for mechanics, or some other specialized industry. One executive recently interviewed for another story told Arkansas Business he could use 25 mechanics for his 20-week in-house training program immediately.

These trade-type jobs, Harvey insists, are for good pay. Webb said he knows of local companies that are offering $18-an-hour jobs to high school graduates.

Even if someone doesn’t want a trade or manufacturing job to be a lifelong occupation, it is at least a viable, profitable option in the short term.

“P-20 has seen kids fall through the cracks who could be really productive,” Harvey said. “We want to expose them to all the options. We’re not telling them not to go to college. We’re telling them if you pursue this it’s not a dead end and it can be a steppingstone.

“When you’re 18 it’s a heck of a burden to say you need to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. There are other options if you’re not sure.”

Webb, Deck and the others said there has to be a transition to a demand side-based approach to job training. Improving soft skill training and better communication between educators and employers will cover a lot of the unknown variables.

“We want to have some concept of what the pressures are going to be: What do companies need in one year, in five years, in 10 years?” Webb said. “We don’t have much lead time. How do we react to that? It’s very hard to do in the real world.”

Money, of course, is an issue, as it usually is. Webb said there are some inexpensive, quick fixes such as information websites, academics for educators and workshops that could be done.

“Those will move the needle,” Webb said. “We could spend $25 million to have a world-class system and still miss the mark. We have to be very strategic.”

At least, now, people are talking about the need.

“Communication is the first step,” Smith said. “We’re working with groups that haven’t communicated much. We spent two years trying to get on the same page.”

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