Annual Survey Provides Basis for Workforce Legislative Changes

The robust, prioritized efforts led by the Northwest Arkansas Council and its partners to update state laws regarding workforce development are starting to pay dividends by increasing the availability of skilled labor, a regional business survey’s findings show.

 Workforce development programs at the Springdale School of Innovation and other schools are increasing skilled labor in Northwest Arkansas. The picture shows Springdale students on a field trip to learn more about diesel technology.

Workforce development programs at the Springdale School of Innovation and other schools are increasing skilled labor in Northwest Arkansas. The picture shows Springdale students on a field trip to learn more about diesel technology.

The Council is making the 2017 Employer Retention and Expansion (ERE) survey’s overall findings public today.

The legislative efforts, combined with local educators’ willingness to create and expand workforce training, are contributing greatly to an increase in industry relevant certifications being offered to students.

The state legislative changes, which included eight new or modified workforce-related laws, were identified as priorities during annual Employer Retention and Expansion (ERE) surveys of hundreds of Northwest Arkansas companies over the past six years.

 “Northwest Arkansas added dozens of programs in our secondary and post-secondary schools,” said Mike Harvey, the Northwest Arkansas Council’s chief operating officer. “Hundreds of students are enrolled and are starting to complete the programs, and that’s encouraging.

“For years, our region has needed far more people learning certain skills than we have people with those skills. We need more certified nurse assistants, welders, diesel mechanics and just about any skilled trade you want to name. We still need far more, too, but we’re starting to close the gap between the number we need and the number our schools are producing.”

The new state legislative acts do such things as allow the state to provide scholarships to students in workforce-related training programs at technical schools and community colleges. Another new law removes seat-time requirements for public school, providing flexibility. It’s also now possible for multiple school districts to work in partnership to create a regional career center.

The ERE program helps the Council identify and address issues impacting the local economy. The legislative changes to enhance workforce development efforts are one of the latest examples of needs and challenges identified during annual ERE visits by representatives of chambers of commerce in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers-Lowell, Siloam Springs and Springdale being addressed in a big way. The face-to-face conversations with companies provide solid data about what’s impacting businesses, their growth plans and the challenges they face.

The 2017 findings based in the interviews of 473 employers include:

  • Employers expect to hire 2,498 people over the next three years. It’s the third highest number reported in the survey’s six years.
  • Employers expect to spend $747 million on expansions in the next three years. That’s the highest number since $808 million was reported in 2012, the survey’s first year.
  • 19 percent of employers plan to expand within three years. Between 21 and 30 percent of employers in the previous five surveys indicated they’d expand.
  • Employers gave high marks to the region’s business climate and economic/community stability.
  • Recruiting and retaining talent remained a top challenge for employers.
  • High fares at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and limited public transportation options were identified as top concerns.

The 2017 survey suggests the workforce-development programs at schools are starting to make an impact as PRIME employers said they’ve had less difficulty finding skilled labor. The survey two years earlier showed 69 percent of PRIME employers had difficulty filling jobs. That figure decreased to 54 percent in 2016, and was 46 percent last year. PRIME employers include the largest employers such as manufacturers, hospitals and corporate headquarters.

“When you look at the three-year trend, fewer companies are having difficulty recruiting the people they need to be successful, and that’s encouraging,” Harvey said.

It’s probable that workforce development programs at Northwest Technical Institute and NorthWest Arkansas Community College are starting to create positive impact by providing employers with the workers needed to be successful. School districts in Benton and Washington counties, meanwhile, are building or expanding career education programs that provide students with certifications in such things as health care occupations, forklift operation, business, information technology, digital photography, machine tooling, childcare, logistics, construction, diesel technology and welding.

Pictured at the top: Pea Ridge Manufacturing and Business Academy students build playground equipment for the Pea Ridge School District's primary school. The students, photographed last year, were in the academy's industrial technology program.