The Northwest Arkansas construction industry has been on the rebound since 2012, when 11,599 worked in the sector. The region had an estimated 13,933 construction jobs in 2017, about 200 more than it reported in 2016, according to figures provided by Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council.
Harvey’s numbers also predict the sector will need 1,245 people to meet turnover and expansion in the sector.
He said the region has worked well to identify labor demand and then implement programs to help fill the gaps. Examples are the construction technology program now in its second year at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, and the four-year construction management program at John Brown University. Harvey said the high schools are also offering construction curriculum for students who want to fast track into the industry after graduation. He said other sectors could learn from this effort.
Keith Peterson, NWACC dean of workforce development, said the two-year construction technology program is in its second year and the first group of graduates will finish this spring. Peterson said leaders in the construction industry began in 2014 voicing concern about having enough skilled workers to support the region’s growth. A result of what was the NWACC program, which is a two-year an applied science degree and requires one semester of internship in the industry.
“Industry leaders bought into the program right away and continue to support it by serving on our advisory board, hiring our interns and also our graduates,” Peterson said. “We say our program graduates are ready for jobs in the superintendent trailer, perhaps bypassing the entry-level jobs of framing or carpentry.”
He said NWACC students in this program generally work in construction jobs in the day and attend classes at night. He said 20 students are benefiting from scholarships made available by 14 construction companies who also lend tangible support to the program. The college also received a $900,000 workforce grant from the state to help local high schools with construction curriculum, equipment and programing costs.
“Students in Northwest Arkansas can begin getting access to the construction industry as early as their sophomore year of high school. We believe layering workforce development programs are some of the most effective because they also students access to jobs at the level they want,” Peterson said, “Some of our students have exited the field for a while and then come back in as their situations changed.”
Peterson said there are more than 70 students in the program, which exceeds the goals set by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education in 2015. He said the numbers might look small but the program has been among the fastest growing trades offered at the college. When students finish the program, he said they are OSHA and NCCER certified which is a base position for minimal requirements, which can be gained while in high school. He said NWACC students have that minimum and also learn the skills for a supervisory role as project coordinator and lower level supervisors.
He said students also learn how to estimate the costs of a project, schedule the labor, and use surveying equipment and drafting skills. About 25% of the coursework involves the business side of construction. Peterson said University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Missouri Southern University and University of Oklahoma have four-year programs like the one at JBU. He said the NWACC degree plan gives students not wanting to spend the full four years in school a way to get the skills they need while still holding down a job. He said NWACC students can also transfer to one of the four-year colleges for the last years if they want.
Harvey said demand for construction jobs is likely to increase as regional growth stays on track. He said the flexibility of programs like NWACC allows industry to train and have input into curriculum, especially with changes being brought about by technology which are impacting every employment sector.
“I am not worried as much about having construction workers as I am IT workforce. It’s true we do need construction workers, but if something doesn’t get built here now, it could still get built a little later on. With IT, those jobs can be performed anywhere in the world, and if we don’t have the workers locally to hire, then our companies will outsource those jobs and we are missing a huge opportunity,” Harvey said.
“We need other sectors like IT to do a better job in readying a workforce, the way our manufacturers are doing with our high schools and junior colleges as well the construction industry who are taking a proactive approach to filling future demand,” Harvey said.