Niche market economic development can be difficult, especially in the Arkansas Delta where decades of population loss and limited educational opportunities hamper workers in some sectors such as technology. Newport leaders hope to change that dynamic.
Newport Economic Development Commission Executive Director Jon Chadwell told Talk Business & Politics that about a year ago local officials learned about technology apprentice programs in Little Rock and one recently formed in Northwest Arkansas. After consultation with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Blue Ribbon Commission, NEDC partnered with the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences (ACDS) and Arkansas State University-Newport to create the Newport Tech Depot IT (information technology) Apprenticeship Academy.
The academy will allow Northeast Arkansas businesses and industries to train workers in a variety of IT disciplines, Chadwell said. The goal is to train about 100 workers or more every six months. At least seven companies have shown an interest in the program, and classes began in late October. These types of jobs can pay anywhere from $45,000 to $80,000 per year.
Tech Depot operates in the Iron Mountain Train Depot in downtown Newport and will move to the new facility once it is built. It will be a boon to businesses in Newport, but will impact other cities such as Jonesboro, Batesville and other population centers in the region, according to those involved.
“The partnership between the Newport Economic Development Commission, ASU-Newport, and the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences is allowing us to support our existing industries by helping them grow the Information Technology talent they need right here in Arkansas,” Chadwell said. “In addition, we believe that having this resource to develop IT talent will attract other companies who are having challenges finding qualified employees for these positions.”
The inaugural classes in the Tech Depot will have more than 40 apprentices participating and will support companies located in Newport, Batesville, and Jonesboro. The partners anticipate classes growing to support more than 100 apprentices every six months by the end of the third year.
Any company with IT employee needs can either send an incumbent worker for apprenticeship training or work with the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences to locate an apprentice to hire and train at the Tech Depot. Individuals interested in IT careers can put their name into the apprenticeship pool of candidates that will be offered to companies for consideration.
The program has three goals, Chadwell said. First, it allows area companies to employ locals who are well trained in IT. Companies often will hire IT specialists from larger cities such as Chicago or Dallas, but the turnover rate is high, he said.
The second goal is to create higher paying jobs. IT jobs typically pay more than the median income in the region, meaning it will have an impact on wage and economic growth in Northeast Arkansas. Those types of jobs tend to be resistant to factors such as the pandemic and economic downturns, he added.
“The bottom line is it will allow our workforce to make more money,” he said.
The third impact is the opportunity to lure companies that need tech savvy workers to the region. One of the primary ways economic developers hope to grow in the future is to attract tech companies to the area, he said. NEDC has formed a committee to create incentive packages for companies that need these types of workers.
The three organizations involved play integral roles in the program. NEDC is responsible for providing the physical building where the training takes place. ACDS will coordinate with the companies to determine what types of IT training are needed and ASU-Newport will provide the curriculum and training. Classes will be catered to each company’s IT training needs.
“This is another huge step forward for apprenticeship programs in Arkansas,” according to ACDS Executive Director Bill Yoder. “We have experience in IT and apprenticeships, and ASU-Newport has experience in technical curriculum development and delivery, and now with this facility we have all the tools for world-class IT training in Newport, Arkansas.”
NEDC recently received a boost toward the creation of a permanent academy building. The United States Economic Development Administration, in October, awarded a $2.5 million grant to the academy. The grant will be matched with $625,000 from the Newport Economic Development Commission to build a 12,000 square foot modern facility.
The new Tech Depot facility will contain apprenticeship training rooms, an IT co-working space, an IT incubator for entrepreneurs, shared office space for companies who use the facility, and an apprenticeship testing center. Anticipated construction time for the building is 18 to 24 months.
“This is a huge day for economic development in Newport,” said Mayor David Stewart. “The new Tech Depot facility will allow our citizens to access the training and skills to work with any company in the world, and often they will be able to work remotely and continue to live and raise their families here.”