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Upskilling Program Lifts Working Adults into Higher-Paying Jobs in Northwest Arkansas

April 12, 2022
Upskill NWA provides tuition funding, childcare and transportation to help workers transition from low-paying jobs into high-demand, higher-paying careers

“When you're in this role, and you are changing peoples' lives, it is not a job,” says Carol Silva Moralez. “It is a purpose.”

As founding President and CEO of Upskill NWA, Carol finds her purpose in helping to lift working adults in Northwest Arkansas into living-wage careers by removing barriers to education that limit their opportunities.

The nonprofit organization, based in Springdale, Ark., has partnered with Excellerate Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation to provide individuals with tuition and wraparound services to earn degrees and professional credentials for high-demand jobs in healthcare.

Carol Silva Moralez is founding president and CEO of Upskill NWA.

“These are people who are really income constrained. They are employed but in low-paying jobs where it takes 14 months' worth of pay to sustain them for 12 months,” says Carol. “They rely on a lot of other support systems just to be able to make it day to day.”

In addition to tuition, the program’s participants receive funding to pay for books, fees, transportation and childcare costs, which often prevent working adults from accessing education and training.

We’re looking for people who have grit and perseverance – a ‘get-things done mentality,’

Based on similar successful programs in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, Upskill NWA also assigns each student a career navigator to help coordinate, mentor and coach them as they work through their program of study and with their post-graduation job hunt. Weekly check-ins and Vision, Initiative, Perseverance (VIP) workshops help further develop other life skills like financial literacy and time management.

I spoke with Carol about the program, which launched in early 2022 with a cohort of 100 students.

So, can you tell me who Upskill NWA is working to help?

We're targeting non-traditional students who are working adults earning between $25,000 a year and $50,000 a year. These are people who are employed, but they're under-employed. They’re working parents. Some are single moms. They are from all demographics. They're above the poverty line but the money they're earning, right now, it does not stretch.

They’ve got some barriers to education. We’re looking for people who have grit and perseverance – a ‘get-things done mentality,’ They're heavily motivated to succeed. Oftentimes we find that this person could be a first-generation college student, somebody who has grown up with that hard-working mom and dad and has watched that parent do everything they can to feed and clothe and support the family. Those key attributes greatly contribute to the success of students who graduate this program.

Upskill NWA’s program is life changing, not just for the students but for their families.

What institutions are the students attending and what certifications or degrees are they pursuing?

There are eight approved programs that we support through three educational institutions, including Northwest Technical Institute, Northwest Arkansas Community College and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences-Northwest. Students study to become registered nurses, emergency medical technicians, respiratory therapists, physical therapy assistants, licensed practical nurses, surgical technologists, radiologic technologists and health information technicians.

Why are you focusing on healthcare professions?

There is a tremendous need for healthcare workers in Northwest Arkansas. In healthcare—one of the highest demand and best paying industries—there is currently a gap for 1,000 skilled positions like nurses, technicians, EMTs and more. The industry has posted 5,000 job openings in the past 12 months, averaging an annual median salary of $46,000. Healthcare is also forecast to be one of the most rapidly growing industries in the region in the years to come. We have endorsements from the five major healthcare partners in the region who have all agreed on the need for the initiative and joined the steering committee to advance the program. We have commitments from employers to place participants in jobs after their graduation from the program. We do plan to expand into other fields, but we really want to make sure we have a solid foundation for these first 100 students in our program.

Upskill NWA assigns each program participant with a Career Navigator who mentor and counsel students until they graduate, says Carol Silva Moralez.

How would you describe the need for ‘upskilling’ in Northwest Arkansas?

Census data reveal that 67% of jobs in Northwest Arkansas pay $50,000 or less, which represents roughly 150,000 people whose lower-wage jobs do not provide the income necessary to support living in a region where affordable housing, health care, or childcare is harder to come by. As a result, these families are usually one unexpected event away from spiraling into crisis.

We refer to this group as the “green band.” These are restaurant workers, retail workers, firefighters. We set a baseline to increase their average pay by $15,000. Right now, registered nurses make just under 55,000. So, for somebody who's coming in at $22,000, they have the potential to more than double their salary. Upskill NWA’s program is life changing, not just for the students but for their families. The model and data from Project Quest in San Antonio, from which Upskill NWA is drawn, shows us that program participant’s children also attend college at a rate of 70% against a baseline average of 45%.

Tell me about the ‘Career Navigator’ assigned to help students. That’s a unique part of this program.

At Upskill NWA, the Career Navigator (CN) is someone who walks along this journey with our students. Each Upskill NWA participant is assigned a CN that will be with them until they graduate. I like to call it shepherding because it's a high touch, high engagement, peer accountability type of model. They mentor students, coach them and promote self-sufficiency. . If you say, “I feel like I need some tutoring,” the navigators put you directly in touch with the available resources at the educational then follow up to make sure that the student got supported. It’s also like having your own personal cheerleader. It’s really special.

Learn more about the opportunities available through Upskill NWA here.

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