Low unemployment could stifle Northwest Arkansas’ long-term growth

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 883 views 

Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council, addressed the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council on Wednesday (Sept. 12) about challenges the region faces in growing its tech talent.

Northwest Arkansas continues to stack up well against the faster growing metros around the country, but if the region is to remain strong more must be done to grow the talent pool in science, technology and engineering fields, according to Mike Harvey, chief operating officer and economist at the Northwest Arkansas Council.

Harvey spoke candidly to the members of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council on Wednesday (Sept. 12) about growth challenges without more innovation to help build on what has been a strong foundation for the past two decades.

“Retail, food and logistics have been our bread and butter but we are not yet generating new technology applications like other regions. Without more focus on the technology sector we stand to see growth stifle,” Harvey said.

He highlighted some weak links in the ecosystems which need to improve to scale the tech sector in the next few years. First, he pointed to the University of Arkansas saying more could be done to grow research funding that typically helps support startups in the early stages. Harvey said UA leadership understands the challenge and is working to double research funds to total around $300 million, which would put the college in 65th place. He said a new hire by the UA should allow for more focus on growing research funding.

Harvey also said the private sector must spend more to support tech startups and research. Just 4% of research funding comes from the Northwest Arkansas private sector, and nationally that level is about 15%, Harvey said.

“We can do better,” he said.

Harvey said a lack of tech talent and skilled trades to support manufacturing and growing healthcare sector is big concern.

“Talent is as important to ecosystem innovation as funding. If we are going to have a robust middle class you have to turn out more skilled labor to support the trades and STEM-related jobs. IT (information technology) is our fastest growing job segment and healthcare is next. We have a long way to go in adding to the labor force in these areas,” Harvey said.

He said it takes time to develop a talent pool organically and while there is a plethora of initiatives underway at various regional high schools and post-secondary schools, the number of skilled workers certified or ready to work is woefully lacking. Last year the UA graduated between 60 and 70 computer scientists and the region needs about 10 times that number. He said in the trades such as welding, mechanics and robotics the need is roughly 20 times the number of students graduating from local trade and post secondary programs.

He applauded the UA Global Campus in Rogers and the work it’s doing to fast track IT training. Tara Dryer, director of training, corporate development and academic outreach at UA Global Campus, said the part-time six-month courses on IT Readiness have been a success. The course includes entry level programing front and back-end, and Java and mobile app development. She said all of the students in the last class were hired by J.B. Hunt Transport for its new technology wing expansion.

Harvey said the program works but more people need to take advantage. He said the Council continues to advocate freeing up state and federal funding that would be applicable to these types of courses outside university degree plans.

Harvey said the Council will hiring two people to help carry out strategic plan goals recently announced. The Council is looking for an innovative educator who can be a resource between the schools and industry. Harvey said the secondary schools across the region from Gravette High School to Fayetteville are doing amazing work to supply more trained workers for the trades and technical jobs out of high school. He said there are pockets of activity but no one to coordinate the efforts and stand as a resource for academia and industry.

He said the region must plan for how it will grow the workforce in tech and the trades, because it’s losing economic development opportunities, more often that not, because of a lack of talent.

Rick Webb, president of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council, said a local startup he’s invested in and mentored moved to Nashville because there was not a substantial medical technology base to support the business. Webb said the technology involves a wireless device that can track patient vital signs when it’s attached to the nose.

“I think this is going to be a growing business and my questions for him was what exactly were we lacking here and what must we do to have you return at some point in the future,” Webb told Talk Business & Politics.

He said Northwest Arkansas has an opportunity to expand its medical technology base with the likes of University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the three other hospital providers in the area. He said Nashville had more to offer the young company with the bigger metro area, Vanderbilt Medical School and a plethora of insurance companies based or located there.

Harvey said the Council is also hiring an arts director who can be resource for this important sector and find ways to tie into the economic fabric of the region. He said the Council would like see the annual NWA Tech Summit, which will draw some 2,000 professionals to the region next month, expand and combine with other festivals like the Bentonville Film Festival or a music festival. He said South by Southwest in Austin started out as a small festival for startups but has grown into an iconic event that offers everything from music, technology and philosophy expertise. He said as technology encompasses nearly every faucet of our lives the region needs to look for opportunities to blend the disciplines where possible.

Harvey said Northwest Arkansas also has to do a better job telling its story on the global scene. He said 56% of residents in Benton and Washington counties were not born there and nearly one-third of them immigrated from another country.