Northwest Arkansas may be the fourth best place to live in the U.S., according to the U.S. News and World Report, but there are more than 10,000 job openings in the region that employers continue to scramble to fill the gaps.
The Northwest Arkansas Council made workforce development the centerpiece theme of this year’s annual meeting held in Fayetteville on Thursday (July 15). Over the past five years, the council has worked to expand engagement with educators, build training capacity with employers and work to create a more favorable policy environment. Mike Harvey, chief operating officer of the council, said since 2016 there have been 18 state laws passed regarding workforce development, 600 employers across the region have taken part in 24 training programs that leveraged over $20 million in funding to support the workforce agenda.
“We have 900 new apprentices in this region and we have made some big strides, but there is still plenty of work to do,” Harvey said.
Upskill NWA has been two years in the making but is now funded by the Excellerate Foundation (f0rmerly Endeavor Foundation) in Springdale and Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville. Harvey said the new program focuses on adult education, where the other work has been in K-12 and early college.
“This program will give adults a chance to change careers with guidance, education and ancillary services like childcare and transportation. It has the potential to pay big dividends over time to the region,” he said.
Jeff Webster, CEO of Excellerate, said the program will focus on healthcare jobs. He said UpSkill NWA is modeled after Project Quest, tested across major cities in Texas.
“In January our program will be up and rolling with 100 students,” Webster said.
With 959 healthcare openings in the region, Webster said that is where UpSkill NWA will begin. Harvey said the payback on the $3 million investment by each foundation is huge.
“A hospitality worker who cleans rooms in hotels could perhaps get the training to become a registered nurse and see that income grow by $35,000 to $40,000 a year or more. This is the type of UpSkill example we have seen in other places,” he said.
Webster said the return on investment to the community in San Antonio has been $19 for every $1 spent. He said Austin has similar results and there is no reason this model can’t work in Northwest Arkansas where there is a strong work ethic.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who spoke at the annual meeting, said workforce development has been a priority during his two terms. He said statewide there are 9,000 apprentices at work, up from 3,200 just four years ago. He said by the time he leaves office he wants to see 10,000 apprentices at work in Arkansas.
One issue Hutchinson noted is the low COVID-19 vaccination rate in Arkansas. He said there is a wide gap between those in major cities and those in rural areas. In Searcy, he said 62% of adults have been vaccinated. In the entire county (White) it is just 34%. The same is true in Benton County, where Rogers has a vaccination rate of 65%, while Benton County is just 40%.
“We have got to do more to get the vaccine into our rural communities and it’s going to take everybody,” he said.
Hutchinson also said he aims to get state income tax rates down to 5.5% – now at 5.9% – before he leaves office and he expects a special session this year to tackle more funding for broadband access.
The council also plans to launch the “Life Works Here” campaign into national media as a way to source talent from outside the area. Nate Green, council spokesman, said in the talent search campaign there were 30,000 applications received from 115 countries. From that, 100 recipients will be awarded a spot getting $10,000, and then their choice of a bike or museum membership. He said 27 of them are now living in Northwest Arkansas.
Green said the perception of Northwest Arkansas outside the region is still murky, despite being tagged a great place to live over and over again in national publications. He said the council hopes to change that national perception with the media campaign.
Council CEO Nelson Peacock said the region is projected to need 80,000 houses over the next few years and that is more than much of the region has today when combining the largest cities. He said the council is committed to work on expanding affordable housing over the two years and that will be crucial to the region’s ability to continue to retain and attract talent.
During the meeting the gavel passed from Karen Roberts, presiding co-chair for 2020-2021, to Marshall Saviers who is taking over for this next year. Saviers is president of Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners in Rogers. Roberts is general counsel for Walmart and in her parting words, she emphasized, “All people are welcome in Northwest Arkansas. All means everyone.”