There are mountains of labor reports that suggest skilled laborers are sorely needed in the construction industry.
Recent statistics indicate it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in Arkansas. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in August 2015, construction employment rose 15 percent in the entire state from 2014.
Keith Peterson has seen all that data. But he didn’t necessarily need to. The market demand in Northwest Arkansas is plainly visible.
“Just drive up and down the [Interstate 49] corridor and see all the projects that are going up,” Peterson said during a recent interview. “There are jobs to be had out there.”
Peterson was hired in January 2014 to be dean of workforce development at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, which reported an enrollment of 7,744 students last fall.
He said quality, comprehensive job training is not only essential to the development of a skilled workforce, it is also somewhat of a responsibility.
“If we are a workforce department, then our primary objective should be putting people in jobs after we train them in something,” he said.
To that end, NWACC will launch a new program this fall — an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in construction technology. An AAS degree is a two-year degree designed for students seeking focused training in a chosen career field to enter the workforce directly after graduation.
Registration for the CT program opened the first week in May, and there are already a “handful” of enrollees, Peterson said.
The two-year program has been in development the last two years, with significant input and guidance from John Brown University in Siloam Springs — one of just three schools in Arkansas to offer a bachelor’s degree in construction management — as well as an advisory board that’s represented by local executives from most every major construction organization in the area.
“I call those guys the ‘dream team,’” said industry veteran Bob Beeler, hired recently by NWACC to be the CT program coordinator. “It’s all the heavy hitters you can think of.”
NWACC’s program will join six other accredited schools in Arkansas where construction management classes are taught — JBU, University of Arkansas at Little Rock and ITT Technical Institute-Little Rock all offer bachelor’s degrees. North Arkansas College, Pulaski Technical College and Southern Arkansas University Tech offer associate degrees.
An articulation agreement between NWACC and JBU is in the works.
“They will leave us with a [degree] that is employable, but if they want to, they can go down the road and continue with a four-year degree with the same scope,” Peterson said. “They are aware of what we are doing, and we’ve been given some informal assurances that from a construction level, they would accept this credit into their program.”
Peterson said what excites him the most about the NWACC program is the fact it was designed for the benefit of companies in Northwest Arkansas.
“As a community college administrator, our generic goal is to support our community,” he explained. “This degree program was 100 percent designed by the construction industry of Northwest Arkansas. It is tailored to meet the needs of prospective employers in this area. And there sure are plenty of them, and there sure are plenty of jobs.
“We have a high degree of confidence that any student that goes through the program will have job opportunities as soon as they leave here, if not before. We’re very excited about the kickoff in August.”
Peterson was vice president of instruction at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale before accepting the job at NWACC. He said the construction technology degree was born from NWACC’s desire to redefine and expand its workforce development offerings.
When the school began narrowing its focus on construction education, Peterson sent out invitations to the “major players” in the industry to visit campus for an informal luncheon to see what they had to say about such a program.
Their response was overwhelming.
“I want to say there were more than 20 [construction] companies represented, and their reaction was, ‘Absolutely. You guys need a program in construction technology.’”
Armed with the feedback, NWACC developed a close relationship with JBU’s construction management department for its feedback.
“They really took us under their wing and helped us understand what this program might look like at a two-year level,” Peterson said. “We went to several meetings with their advisory board and got some feedback, and they were excited to help.”
The next step, Peterson said, was for NWACC to form its own advisory board, and the group that Beeler collectively refers to as the “dream team” has been vital to delivering the program from idea to reality.
“I have been in workforce education for a little more than a decade now,” Peterson said. “When I say this, I am not being hyperbolic at all. This has been the highest level, most engaged and most impactful advisory board I have ever been a part of in my career.”
Their enthusiasm, Peterson said, stems from their everyday needs.
“There’s so much building going on, and their biggest concern right now is do they have a qualified workforce to support their projects and their companies,” he said.
Steve Clouten, executive vice president at national commercial contractor Nabholz Construction Corp., is a member of the construction advisory boards at both JBU and NWACC. He works from the Conway-based firm’s Rogers office, and says it has been rewarding to see competing companies collaborating together to get behind the NWACC program.
“From Nabholz to Crossland to Milestone to Baldwin & Shell, and on and on, it’s across the board,” he said. “We understand the importance of having a strong workforce, and there’s been so much momentum that has been built up to this point to be able to support the NWACC program. I am really proud to be a part of that.”
Creating a Workforce
The NWACC program will target two different demographics. The first are high school graduates who want to do more than just swing a hammer, and the second are incumbent workers hoping to climb the company ladder.
“The high school program is still coming out of the ground,” Beeler explained. “Next year  I think is when that is really going to start flying, but we’re doing our best to get the word out to the 19 feeder high schools that NWACC participates with. We are hopeful that high school students will look at this as a viable career.”
Peterson said the feedback he’s gotten from local companies both big and small is that many of them have qualified employees with a great deal of seniority, but lack the credentials to be upwardly mobile.
He said training for a wide variety of jobs, including field supervisors, estimators, schedulers, project engineers and project superintendents, is desperately needed.
“This is an opportunity for them to get a college credential that will move them into the superintendent’s trailer, and possibly to the front office,” Peterson said. “So we are very excited about that component as well.”
Of the nine core courses in the program, five of them will have an associated lab. And because it is expected there will be enrollees who are already working during the day, the non-core construction classes will be available at night, and the general education core courses will be available online.
“Every person [NWACC] can put in that program will make an impact on our industry here,” Clouten said. “I really believe that. We have to create a workforce to be able to build a project, but we also have to create a workforce to manage those projects.”
Promoting a Career
Construction spending in the United States totaled $85.8 billion in March, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, an 8 percent jump from March 2015.
That represents money spent on all types of construction — residential, commercial, infrastructure, public, private, etc.
You can find examples from all of those sectors in Northwest Arkansas, where construction activity is booming.
“We’re reaching busy levels that we saw in 2005 and 2006 when it was really rushing,” Marc Dillard said. “It’s as busy as it’s been in years.”
Dillard, a graduate of UALR’s construction management program, has been vice president of operations for Kinco Constructors since 2002. He heads up the Little Rock firm’s Northwest Arkansas office in Springdale.
He was also asked to serve on NWACC’s CT advisory board, and is excited to see the program added.
“We think it’s going to benefit not just the local market, but the entire Arkansas market,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but we need good people. We need trained people. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
Clouten said he is starting to see a shift toward better promotion of pursuing construction trade jobs as a career, which hasn’t been all that strong over the past decade.
“There’s a lot of good talent in the high schools, and we have to promote it as an industry that is very financially rewarding in many different career paths,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how financially rewarding it can be. It’s not just the paradigm of someone working out in the heat and the dust. There are many different options one can take to have a successful career.”
Clouten, an Australia native who has worked in the construction industry for more than four decades, said education should be a stepping stone for working professionals, whether it’s in the field or in the office.
Those are the same stepping stones that led Clouten to Northwest Arkansas. He came up through the trades, starting a four-year apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery as a 16 year old in Australia. He later worked in the North Solomon Islands as a construction superintendent.
His world travels eventually brought him to the U.S. in October 1982, where he decided his construction career would best be furthered with formal education.
He has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering from the University of New Mexico, and a master’s degree in construction engineering and management from the University of California, Berkeley.
Clouten had worked for several construction and development companies throughout the U.S. before accepting a job offer from Nabholz in December 2010 to join its executive leadership team in Rogers.
“Not every high school student is geared to go to college first; I am an example of that,” he said. “I spent 10 years in the trades before I decided to pursue college. I think a lot of young people need that time to be able to seek out what they want to do from a career and future standpoint.
“I’m glad I took that path.”
Success stories like Clouten’s are what Peterson is hoping to replicate at NWACC.
“If we can deliver a product and train good students, then the demand for students is just going to go up and up,” he said. “My ultimate goal is that we are celebrating an anniversary of this program in 15 years.
“The measure of success is that the program endures.”