Revamping Workforce Education in Arkansas

By Emily Rogan

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently signed into law three measures that support workforce-education initiatives, emphasize greater and improved collaboration between government agencies and provide competitive grant money for workforce-training programs and community colleges. See how one Arkansas community college might benefit.

Pulaski Technical College is the largest two-year college in Arkansas, serving roughly 9,000 students in the state’s central region and offering more than 90 degree and career pathways.

“We serve a predominantly underserved population of students,” says Bentley Wallace, vice president of economic development. “It’s a racially diverse, high-needs population, with high Pell grant eligibility and a majority of students requiring at least one remedial course.”

And, like many other colleges, funding is a challenge. So there is hope that the latest legislation signed into law will bring some much-needed support to the programs that Pulaski already offers.

Legislation that supports workforce development

Three bills were signed into law. The first includes the establishment of a Career Education and Workforce Development Board and a Department of Skills Development within the Department of Career Development; the goal would be to fund workforce-training programs.

The second bill would offer $2 million in competitive grant money to two-year colleges through a yet unspecified program in the Department of Higher Education.

The third bill would establish the Arkansas Workforce Development Board, which would advise the governor on statewide workforce needs. This bill includes the establishment of similar regional workforce boards.

Potential funds to support programs such as employer partnerships, mandatory advising

While educators across the state wait to see how this legislation takes shape, at Pulaski Technical College, they’re already committed to improving outcomes and helping students move toward successful careers, Wallace says. Through credit-earning programs, students study and prepare for careers in nursing and allied health care, welding, HVAC, automotive repair and hospitality. “We have great affiliations with professional associations,” Wallace says.

On the noncredit side, Pulaski works with employer partners, such as Kimberly-Clark, 3M and L’Oreal. In fact, Dassault Falcon, a jet manufacturer, is putting the finishing touches on its operation in Little Rock and will rely on Pulaski for “customized training in advanced manufacturing,” Wallace says. “We are working with our partners to streamline quick access to training to get people to work in weeks, not months.”

This relationship-building has led Pulaski to move into the “talent acquisition side,” he explains. “We are identifying people as potential employees and getting them in touch with employers. They want people who will show up, have good communication skills and can pass a drug test. These talent-pipeline programs really help them to know the people before they hire them.”

Additionally, Pulaski has shifted to a mandatory advising program for all first-time students. From the beginning, students will have a clear understanding of how they can stack credentials and see what their potential career and degree pathways might be.

“We want to be clear to parents and students what the courses will be, when they will take them, what kinds of jobs are out there and what the earning potential will be,” Wallace says.

The school has already seen an increase in its retention and success rates as a result of this systematic change, he adds.

In terms of potential funds from the state, Wallace says there remain many unknown factors, since the legislation is relatively new. Both the school administration and its employer partners are eager to see how additional funding might support existing programs.

“We have weathered the economic storm without huge cuts to education,” Wallace says. “We are poised and ready. We know the foundation of trying to attract and grow new business is 100 percent dependent on a qualified and trained workforce. How will they implement that? That’s uncertain,” he says.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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