Industry and education partnerships are an increasingly popular way of creating a talent pipeline for Arkansas businesses. One such partnership was the highlight of Wednesday’s (April 13) NWA Tech Council meeting in Bentonville.
Fostering partnerships between business and high school students in an effort to grow a workforce pipeline is part of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s 2015-2017 Regional Development Strategy.
Andy Mayes teaches in the Ignite program at Bentonville High School, a new program began this school year that partners students with local businesses. The goal is to help students gain real-life experience in an industry that has increasing workforce needs. The program has what are called “strands,” which are essentially industries of focus for the student. This year the IT solutions strand is the only program, but in 2016-2018, the plan is to expand computer information systems and add construction trades, health professions, digital media, logistics/supply chain management, and hospitality/culinary.
The courses are open to juniors and seniors. The program is funded in part from a Walton Family Foundation grant to help fund for $239,600 and partnerships with businesses.
Each strand is designed to meet Arkansas curriculum frameworks, Mayes said. The IT solutions strand fits three course requirements: Computer-Based Applications, Essentials of Computer Programming, and Career/Technical Education Internship. Students also gain a total of 6 credit hours from NorthWest Arkansas Community College (each year) and a certificate in workforce readiness from the University of Arkansas noncredit program.
Mayes said the district met with Northwest Arkansas Council officials and area industries to determine the biggest area workforce needs. They engage with local companies to provide projects for the students such as creating an app for Walmart, or helping with other technical projects at smaller companies.
“We needed to make sure we are meeting the needs of the local market,” Mayes said.
The students learn much more than technical skills. The first portion of the program is to help them gauge and better understand their individual learning styles. They are also taught much-needed workplace skills such as conflict management and emotional intelligence.
As to technical skills the students gain, several employers agree that the students’ abilities reach above their expectations. Businesses are in greater need for “full stack” developers, which means the developer can create each part of the technology application from the front end to the behind the scenes components.
“These are the types of people companies are trying to hire,” Mayes said.
Several students gave testimonies about the work they do in the program. Castle Kerr, 18, a senior, entered the program with a myriad of technical skills, but what he’s gained in the program is the ability to connect those skills and apply them to specific, real-life scenarios.
“I have the experience to address the problems (presented by the project),” he said.
Several council members are also employers who provide projects for the students. They said students have far exceeded any expectations for their skills and professionalism.
Michael White, a salesman with Mill Creek Software, said at first, his employer was concerned that the students would be much like other interns that require supervision without many results.
“Instead, now we want to hire them,” White said.
Jarrod Ramsey with Rockfish Interactive said the students exceeded expectations in talent and ability to work independently. He added that he can teach specific skills but he looks for people with a passion for the topic and employable soft skills. These students are coming in with a foundation in all three.
“These students are coming in with skills beyond what people coming out of college have,” he said.