Researchers: Northwest Arkansas Schools Make Progress in Addressing Workforce

Northwest Arkansas schools are making remarkable progress in aligning their career education programs to fit employers’ needs, but there’s a long way to go before satisfying all the workforce needs across the region.

That’s one of the conclusions reached by researchers with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) after they and their partners at Avalanche Consulting reviewed how effectively Northwest Arkansas schools are meeting the workforce needs of area companies. CAEL’s overall findings were presented in July to Northwest Arkansas Council members and school district superintendents.

“Northwest Arkansas is well-positioned to bring world-class programming to scale, due in large part to the willingness and enthusiasm of both the education and business communities to work together,” said Joel Simon, CAEL’s vice president for workforce and economic development. “Northwest Arkansas’ strategy focuses on the workforce pipeline, specifically how career and technical programs in the region’s high schools are helping young people understand which jobs and careers offer the best opportunities and to gain skills and credentials that prepare them for those opportunities. Northwest Arkansas is home to many examples of high quality, innovative, and emerging models of career-related secondary education.”

The Northwest Arkansas Council commissioned the CAEL study. Researchers met with Northwest Arkansas secondary and post-secondary educators and representatives of the region’s business community earlier this year.

“What’s happened in Northwest Arkansas over the past three years is nothing short of amazing,” said Mike Harvey, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s chief operating officer and the manager of the Council’s workforce-focused programs. “We had fewer than five high school programs addressing workforce needs in effective ways, and now 10 additional high schools have either created or are creating what we believe will become effective programs.

“Workforce is not something you can fix overnight because it takes years to get students through the workforce-training pipeline.”

CAEL’s evaluation showed:

  • Significant worker supply shortages are anticipated in business, transportation, construction, maintenance, medical, production and information technology occupations. Those career fields are either not supported by local educational systems or the programs that do exist don’t produce enough graduates to support demand.
  • Programs at secondary schools make up about half of the region’s career education programs, but the offerings and quality are often misaligned with local needs.
  • No structured, deliberate process exists in Northwest Arkansas to make all students aware of career education programs.
  • Education bureaucracy can hinder innovation in the workforce delivery system. Certain rules and having multiple program overseers are making it difficult for school districts to make changes to their programs.

Based on those findings, CAEL made a series of recommendations that will be addressed by the Northwest Arkansas Council and its partners. Those recommendations include:

  • Increasing the collaboration between industry and educators.
  • Making students more aware of career opportunities.
  • Creating agreed-upon Career and Technical Education (CTE) standards.
  • Aligning regional education and training programs.
  • Identifying policy barriers that could be inhibiting the development of high-quality Career and Technical Education programs.
  •