Conventional career path, interrupted? The case for workforce development

by Alexis Freeman ([email protected]) 1,048 views 

Traditionally, Arkansas students graduate high school and pursue higher education or get full-time jobs. These career paths have, for the most part, provided a steady stream of talent to keep our economy moving forward.

But should these routes change to prepare the next generation for today’s globally competitive economy? The short answer is yes. Yet, it still begs the question, “Where and how do professional and workforce development initiatives fit into the equation?”

Over the last several years, Arkansas has seen increased interest in technical training programs, either with or instead of two- and four-year educational degrees. Take the regular session of the 94th General Assembly as a recent example.

Under Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) is tasked with “strengthen[ing] career and workforce readiness.” ADE will provide flexibility for high school students to obtain internships and apprenticeships while also aligning career and technical programs with high-demand jobs. The legislation builds on the existing efforts of higher education institutions to develop specialized courses for industry recruitment and retention.

Our state’s emphasis on skilled trades is warranted, especially considering the incredible growth we’ve experienced in advanced manufacturing sectors like steelmaking and aerospace. However, we must complement these technical programs with professional development initiatives that equip young adults with perhaps the most in-demand capabilities – soft skills.

The Arkansas Department of Education remarks that soft skills are “intangible abilities that help people get along with others, communicate well and make positive contributions in the workplace and beyond.” According to reports, 90% of employers now use soft skills as a primary hiring determinant. Businesses also leverage these attributes to predict an individual’s “career durability” or whether they will remain engaged and productive team members once on the job.

City Year Little Rock has witnessed the value of soft skills-focused workforce development programs firsthand. For nearly two decades, we’ve deployed teams of AmeriCorps members into Central Arkansas schools to serve as student success coaches. Every day, they provide children with academic, emotional and social support to achieve their full potential. Along with this valuable experience, they receive more than 200 hours of professional development, including hands-on career training, coaching and mentorship.

Surveys consistently show employers want and need workers with a strong work ethic who are effective communicators, collaborators, critical thinkers and problem solvers. City Year Little Rock AmeriCorps members demonstrate these skills daily while working in our local schools. At the end of their service, they have a toolkit of sought-after capabilities, a distinction the U.S. Department of Labor says gives them a “competitive edge” in a 21st-century workplace.

The economy is rapidly changing, as are the demands on Arkansas businesses and their employees. Encouraging our state’s young adults to consider professional and workforce development programs is critical to their future career success, whether post-high school, during college or after obtaining their degree. For those who want to enhance their soft skills, City Year Little Rock is accepting AmeriCorps member applications for 2023-2024 at cityyear.org/little-rock.

Editor’s note: Alexis Freeman is the community partnership manager for City Year Little Rock and a former AmeriCorps member who served with the education nonprofit during the 2019-2020 school year. The opinions expressed are those of the author.