Miguel Aguilla discovered the joys of coding as a high school student in Northwest Arkansas, taking classes in computer programming.
“I created my own little 2D game based on a dodging game [where] you're dodging something,” Miguel remembers. “I remember really enjoying that project. And so that's all that I had been wanting to do for my life.”
Miguel, 26, is getting that chance now as an applications developer apprentice at Data Scout. The Fayetteville, Arkansas-based company creates web-based programs and apps for businesses and governments.
Through his paid apprenticeship, Miguel is programming websites for realtors and local municipalities. It’s a chance, he says, to “get my foot in the door” in the industry.
“I like the problem-solving aspect of coding – putting the pieces together, researching and solving problems. It’s such a great feeling,” he says.
Miguel’s apprenticeship is supported through a partnership between the Walton Family Foundation and the nonprofit Arkansas Center for Data Sciences (ACDS). The program helps the region’s residents get the exact skills they need for in-demand IT careers.
It’s part of the foundation’s effort to build purposeful career pathways for all residents that leads to more inclusive growth in Northwest Arkansas. The region is currently facing critical shortages of highly-skilled workers in fields like information technology (IT) and healthcare. Yet, residents from underserved communities face barriers to access these high-wage job opportunities in these professions.
“We're trying to help people move forward in terms of their own economic mobility,” says Joe Rollins, workforce development director for the Northwest Arkansas Council, another foundation partner. Their CareersNWA initiative provides information on the region’s job opportunities, as well as the training programs that can increase access to these careers.
“Some currently have a job. They simply want to get a better one. They want to refine their skills, create new tools in that tool bag to make sure that they're ready for that next job … and build a better life for [their] family.”
The ACDS works with local employers to provide on-the-job experience through paid apprenticeships, internships and training. It provides access to these IT job opportunities for residents who don’t attend college right after high school.
Lonnie Emard is the apprenticeship director at the ACDS. He says the apprenticeship program bridges the gap between employers that need qualified talent and workers who are eager to find good-paying IT jobs but may not have a college degree or professional certification.
“Employers look out over this chasm and they don't think anybody's really qualified. At the same time, you've got all the candidates looking across that same chasm, looking at IT opportunities and thinking, ‘I could do that job.’ But they look at the job postings and think, ‘I guess I'm not qualified,’” Lonnie says. “So what we've done is we've created a bridge. That bridge has allowed the employer to take a couple of steps closer toward people and meet them where they are.”
Bill Yoder, executive director at the ACDS, calls the program a win-win for employers and businesses. Companies gain qualified employees and benefit from a more talented local workforce. For the apprentices, the experience is “almost life-changing,” Bill says.
Statewide, the ACDS apprenticeship’s participants saw an average 17% increase in wages before and after the program. Almost 60% were from underserved communities.
“The average salary of the apprentice when they start is $55,000. That's much higher than what they were making in their previous employment. And at the end of the one-year apprenticeship, it's been $67,000,” says Bill.
What ACDS is doing in IT, Upskill NWA is doing for those in healthcare.
Upskill NWA provides students with tuition and wraparound services to earn degrees and professional credentials in the healthcare sector. It is aimed at residents who have traditionally faced barriers in accessing good quality jobs, specifically those who have household incomes at or lower than 80% of the region’s median income.
In addition to tuition, participants receive funding to pay for books, fees, transportation and childcare costs. These costs often prevent working adults from accessing education and training needed to obtain high-quality jobs.
Tania Camacho received funding to pay for tuition and books she needed to become a registered nurse, after nine years working as a medical assistant. Upskill NWA also assigned Tania a career coach throughout school and during her job search.
“They help you to better yourself,” she says. Tania secured a job at Arkansas Children’s Northwest Hospital after receiving six job offers.
To date, graduates supported by Upskill NWA have earned average pay increases of 307%.
The success of these workforce development programs demonstrates how nontraditional job candidates can play a big role in filling the gap in highly-skilled jobs in the region.
“We have the ability to find talent, to create, to grow the economy, to grow the community,” says Cory Scott, chief operations officer at Data Scout. Cory hired Miguel Aguilla, first as an intern then as an apprentice.
“We are seeing nontraditional candidates who bring an entirely different perspective … We're getting different ideas, we're getting different processes, all the things that just [build] a greater community and a greater, larger talent pool.”
Miguel's Data Scout experience has opened a future path to “doing my dream job.”
“I'm the kind of person that chases what he wants,” he says. “The whole program has set me on that trajectory to getting that high-paying role and being an actual software developer in the future.”