Northwest Arkansas Council: Schools ready to do more on workforce issues

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 77 views 

Northwest Arkansas schools continue to work with industry and regional stakeholders to align career education programs with the needs voiced by area employers from the construction industry, to the manufacturing and technology fields.

While there has been progress in the past 36 months, Northwest Arkansas Council economist and chief operating officer Michael Harvey said there is much to do before all the workforce needs in the region are satisfied.

A study conducted by the Council for Adult and Experimental Learning (CAEL) and their partners at Avalanche Consulting looked at workforce needs in the local region and how effectively area schools are meeting the workforce needs of local companies.

“Northwest Arkansas is well-positioned to bring world-class programming to scale, due in large part to the willingness and enthusiasm of both the education and business communities to work together,” said Joel Simon, CAEL’s vice president for workforce and economic development. “Northwest Arkansas’ strategy focuses on the workforce pipeline, specifically how career and technical programs in the region’s high schools are helping young people understand which jobs and careers offer the best opportunities and to gain skills and credentials that prepare them for those opportunities. Northwest Arkansas is home to many examples of high quality, innovative, and emerging models of career-related secondary education.”

The Northwest Arkansas Council commissioned the CAEL study. Researchers met with Northwest Arkansas’ secondary and post-secondary educators and representatives of the region’s business community earlier this year.

“What’s happened in Northwest Arkansas over the past three years is nothing short of amazing,” Harvey said. “We had fewer than five high school programs addressing workforce needs in effective ways, and now 10 additional high schools have either created or are creating what we believe will become effective programs. Workforce is not something you can fix overnight because it takes years to get students through the workforce-training pipeline.”

He told Talk Business & Politics that in the information technology (IT) area there are roughly 300 jobs created annually, many of which go unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates. Harvey said schools like Bentonville and Springdale have taken a leadership role in establishing IT programs that allow students to do internships at local companies.

This past year several Bentonville High School students were interns at Wal-Mart, the first time the retail giant has allowed a high school student to intern. The students worked on a project created by Wal-Mart and a few weeks into the program, then Bentonville School Superintendent Michael Poore said he got a call from the Wal-Mart team wanting to meet. Poore said he was initially worried because the students could have accidentally done something wrong, but then he was pleasantly surprised when Wal-Mart told him the project was finished weeks ahead of schedule and they needed to come up with more work.

Harvey said it’s not just the giant employers making use of high school interns. Bentonville-based RevUnit brought two high school interns on this summer and it’s likely one of them is going to stay on full-time and go to college on a part-time basis.

The local manufacturing sector is always looking for qualified job applicants and schools like Springdale and Pea Ridge have had programs in place for several years in diesel mechanics, welding and other industrial maintenance work. He said the construction trades program at Springdale Har-Ber High School is another example of a district actively working with industry.

While Harvey applauds the efforts, the CAEL study found there are ssignificant worker supply shortages in business, transportation, construction, maintenance, medical, production and information technologies. The study found that the career fields are either not supported by local education systems or the programs that do exist do not produce enough graduates to support the demand.

The study also highlighted the following deficiencies.
• Programs at secondary schools make up about half of the region’s career education programs, but the offerings and quality are often misaligned with local needs.

• No structured, deliberate process exists in Northwest Arkansas to make all students aware of career education programs.

• Education bureaucracy can hinder innovation in the workforce delivery system. Certain rules and having multiple program overseers are making it difficult for school districts to make changes to their programs.

CAEL made several recommendations to the region based on their study. First, the region needs more collaboration between industry and educators. Also, more work is needed to make students aware of career opportunities as early as possible. The group also recommends a better alignment between all the educational systems in the region from high schools to trade schools and junior and senior colleges.

Harvey said the gaps in the local workforce are a serious problem and hurdle to the region’s ability to grow. He said the Northwest Arkansas Council will continue track the progresses made and access the future demand. Harvey said solutions to plugging workforce gaps include involving all stakeholders in the process and then creating pathways for the present and future workforce to get the needed training to move from a part-time service industry job to steady, full-time employment and raise their overall financial outlook in the process.

A typical half-time job in the service industry pays about $10 to start. The IT trades have a starting hourly salary of $20. Manufacturing jobs can range from $12 to $20 per hour depending on the level of skills and industry.

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