Building a trained, highly-skilled workforce is a priority in Arkansas. The state has already proven to have a strong educational system as it placed fifth nationally in the 2012 Quality Counts analysis by Education Week.
That ranking was the result of an umbrella program called Arkansas Works, which had its roots in the Governor’s Summit on Education and Economic Development, held in 2008. It is the state’s strategic initiative to coordinate education, training and economic development in Arkansas communities as a way of ensuring that the state provides a highly qualified and educated workforce for the future.
The program has become the hub for bringing together educational opportunities and job training, while providing the resources for workforce hiring and training to aid companies in their success.
On the education side the state is home to 21 four-year colleges and universities and 22 two-year colleges. On the workforce side, the state has a number of workforce training programs coordinated through a network of workforce training consortia.
The training consortium is comprised of businesses and industries that identifies common training needs and arranges classes that are customized to meet their specific requirements. The employer-driven consortia allow each individual community to tailor its training programs around local industry needs resulting in classes on a variety of topics, such as computer skills, professional development, mechanical skills, welding and electrical skills.
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission acts as liaison with business. The organization can provide financial resources as well as secure technical resources to fill in educational gaps that industries discover. The commission also acts as the conduit between two-year college programs and employers, providing customized programs.
On a state level the STEM Works program is strengthening these core disciplines at both the high school and university levels.
“The STEM fields offer stable, well-paying careers for the 21st century, and the demand continues to grow at a rapid pace,” Governor Mike Beebe said upon announcing the program in 2011. “These are positions that companies are struggling to fill, even in tough economic times. If we are to continue to attract these types of companies to Arkansas, we must prepare our young people with high-tech skills and build a workforce that will help our state prosper.”
The goal is to ensure the state will be able to meet the escalating demand for employees in high-tech fields by implementing new ways in which Arkansas high-school students receive STEM education and to increase the number of well-qualified STEM teachers.
Participants in the pilot program to date include 15 school districts and one technical center. Schools participate in either New Tech Network and/or Project Lead the Way.
The New Tech high-school model integrates STEM education and extensive project-based learning throughout the curriculum. New Tech schools will receive $150,000 each with the exception of Lincoln and Cross County High Schools which will each receive $75,000.
Project Lead the Way includes several introductory courses in engineering or biomedical sciences that show how basic concepts taught in the classroom are used in the work world. Schools participating in Project Lead the Way will each receive varying amounts up to about $95,000, depending on need.
Another component of the program is UTeach, a component of STEM Works, provides secondary teacher training for college STEM majors, ensuring that Arkansas produces a steady stream of qualified educators. Another model currently under development, REAL Schools, is based on an EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) strategy that will connect more schools with the STEM curriculum.
On the workforce side of training is The Business and Industry Training Program. The program, designed for new and expanding business and industry, helps companies with recruiting workers, pre-employment training, on-the-job training, and train-the-trainer. The program also provides training assistance for existing businesses with new technology needs.