Northwest Arkansas is experiencing a period of exciting growth. The region’s strong economy is attracting talent from across the country. But this growth isn’t working for everyone.
According to the Brookings Institution, northwest Arkansas performs poorly when it comes to income equality. The region ranked 53rd of 56 metro areas in terms of the change in median incomes of white residents relative to residents of color. Over a recent 10-year period, white residents’ median income rose by 32.6% while that of Hispanic residents rose by 29.6%. Alarmingly, the median income of Black residents declined by 13.9%.
When compared with peer communities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Durham, North Carolina, northwest Arkansas has the most households below the poverty level — nearly 16%. We need to do better.
Our region will only truly thrive if its growth is inclusive. Everyone who lives here should benefit from our region’s successes and have access to its opportunities.
To enable more inclusive growth, the Walton Family Foundation is supporting workforce development organizations and educators who are building pathways for underserved students and residents to get the exact skills they need for better-paying jobs with more potential for career advancement. This effort helps build a bigger pool of qualified workers ready to fill the jobs employers need.
For Arkansas’ economy to thrive, it must work for everyone. Residents from overlooked communities deserve the opportunity for career pathways that lead to a fulfilling and secure life.
Local businesses can play a key role in these programs’ success.
First, we need your input. What type of employees are you looking for? What skills should they possess?
The Northwest Arkansas Council holds frequent business roundtables that allow employers to tailor training and curriculums in area schools and career training programs to meet their workforce needs.
The council has also launched CareersNWA to help students, job seekers and employers connect. More than 700 regional businesses have joined the online talent network.
Second, we need your participation. A four-year college degree is just one of many pathways to lifelong employment, particularly in fields like information technology (IT) and health care. As pathways to careers expand beyond four-year college degrees, so should your hiring criteria. Already, our region has access to reskilling and upskilling programs that help businesses provide apprenticeship and internship opportunities.
For example, 94 employers have participated in an IT apprenticeship program run by the nonprofit Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. Apprentices are hired by employers while also enrolled in classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Since the program’s launch, it has placed 473 IT apprentices statewide, 86% of whom have been hired full time. Participants’ wages increased an average of 17% after completing the program. Critically, 57% of participants were from underserved communities.
Another partner, Upskill NWA, supports underserved residents pursuing health care careers. Upskill NWA has partnered with three regional academic institutions to train low-income residents at no cost. The nonprofit provides tuition, books and “wraparound services” like child care and transportation. In the past 12 months, Upskill NWA has accepted 97 participants, and 16 have already found permanent employment.
Average wages for those who completed training have grown more than 300%.
For Arkansas’ economy to thrive, it must work for everyone. Businesses deserve a deep pool of local talent that meets evolving workforce needs. And residents — particularly from communities overlooked in hiring — deserve the opportunity to get the skills and credentials that lead to a fulfilling and secure life for themselves and their families.
When hiring employees, I encourage you to take a chance on these unconventional candidates and see for yourself the value they bring.
This article was originally published December 5, 2022 in Arkansas Business.