Northwest Arkansas officials want better precision when it comes to developing the region’s workforce.
As the area’s population continues to grow, employers in certain industries are struggling to find qualified job candidates. The nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council is working with local business and education leaders to develop a regionwide response.
The council isn’t the only entity working to solve the workforce problem. The Excellerate Foundation, a partner of the Walton Family Foundation, created Upskill NWA, a program that aims to turn low-wage earners into qualified health care employees through education access.
The drive to maximize the northwest Arkansas workforce is multifaceted. Local leaders must identify the most in-demand jobs and make prospective job fillers aware of the opportunities. And education and training programs must connect the two sides.
“It does take a village,” said Carol Silva Moralez, CEO of Upskill NWA of Springdale. “It takes collaboration across public and private sectors.”
The council hired Joe Rollins as its director of workforce development in October 2018. Rollins said employers in fields like construction, health care and technology are desperate to fill job openings. The key is targeting students before they even graduate high school.
“Students need to understand that a lot of our employers are willing to onboard early and invest in their employees in continued education and training and development,” Rollins said. “That is a strong opportunity for a young job seeker because they have an opportunity to get some boots-on-the-ground experience and build a network of mentors they can learn from.”
Tara Dryer, senior managing director at the University of Arkansas Global Campus, said the region’s workforce development initiatives are a group effort between educational institutions and businesses.
“Everything is business and industry driven,” Dryer said. “Workforce development is everybody that you need to come work in your industry. People need all of it. It is meeting people where their needs are.”
Rollins said that from an employee perspective, developing the area’s workforce is all about awareness.
The council has made a big push to get into the area’s schools to let the students know that if a traditional college path isn’t available, then other options and help are available.
“We are really trying to address the breadth of what these companies have to offer in terms of career opportunities,” Rollins said.
Dryer said the UA worked with aircraft manufacturer Game Composites in Bentonville to develop a six-week online course. Upon completion of the course, students would be guaranteed a job interview with the company, which was founded by Philipp Steinbach and Walmart Inc. heir Steuart Walton.
The payoff for the student is a short-term investment that could result in a job or a career. The company gets an entry-level employee who doesn’t require pre-training upon hiring.
The UA is also working on a grant to start a microelectronics career pathway. Its efforts also include making its certification programs stackable toward a degree.
The Northwest Arkansas Education Service Co-op in Farmington is doing similar work in high schools. The co-op serves 17 school districts in Washington, Benton and Madison counties and helps students get training and professional development in career programs.
Starlinda Sanders, the co-op’s career and technical education coordinator, said the co-op identified industry needs such as cybersecurity and robotics that students could train for.
“We must grow our own talent,” Sanders said. “If we want to recruit top executives at a $500,000 salary or $3 million salary, we can do that. We don’t need that many. If you’re talking about industrial engineers, maintenance technicians, drone pilots, those types of positions, we have many positions that are difficult to recruit for those. We are recruiting alongside every other region in the nation. It is a very competitive market.”
Northwest Arkansas’ unemployment rate is just above 2%, but Sanders said northwest Arkansas actually has a negative unemployment rate, with more jobs than people to fill them.
The council gained national attention for offering $10,000 and a bicycle for its 2021 Life Works Here strategy to attract workers to the region. It also ran job ads for technology workers in San Francisco newspapers and online.
Dryer said the region has more than 10,000 job openings, and 80% don’t require a college degree. The council wants the region to increase its population percentage with at least a bachelor’s degree — it is now just 33% — but good careers are available without the cost of college.
The council held a Build My Future event in April, attracting more than 1,300 people to explore the construction industry. Some of the area’s largest construction companies were there.
“Every booth put students shoulder to shoulder with working men and women in the skilled trades,” Rollins said. “We had students laying rock, pulling wire, framing walls, operating simulators, operating real heavy equipment under supervision. They have those experiences to take back and make tangible career decisions.”
Silva Moralez said it is important for the region to develop more of its own workforce. “It is very important that they get introduced to careers while they are still in school and still trying to make up their minds and build their education plans,” she said. “They can set themselves up for the future. This is locally grown talent for the northwest Arkansas region.
“We, as workforce practitioners, are the ones who are most informed on what are the high-demand industries across sectors that are driving the economic growth for northwest Arkansas. We should be very intentional in which programs we are introducing to that student population.”