Employers in Western Arkansas have access to a ready supply of skilled workers, thanks in part to the work of the region's higher education institutions.
Western Arkansas is home to two campuses of the University of Arkansas System — the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith (UAFS) and the University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain, a community college in Mena which offers associate degrees and certificate programs.
UAFS offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as certifications in more than 50 program areas, including animated technology, elementary education, marketing and media communications and robotics.
“Graduating students with relevant job skills is at the core of what we do,” says Ken Warden, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at UAFS.
The College of Applied Science and Technology maintains strong relationships with the business community, utilizing “robust” advisory boards for each program and degree area, Warden says. The advisory boards are comprised of experts in the field who keep UAFS up to speed on changes in their industries so curricula and lab experiences can be adjusted to ensure students get the education and training they need. And it taps organizations such as the Western Arkansas Workforce Development Board, Fort Smith Regional Alliance and Western Arkansas Planning and Development District to gain input for program design and support economic development efforts in the region.”
The University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain in Polk County also collaborates with local businesses to improve work skills of area employers. Services range from seminars to industry-specific classes that meet targeted employer goals.
The Department of Workforce Services is relocating its Mena office to the UA Rich Mountain campus. This partnership will allow prospective employees to get information and training in one location to improve their opportunities for work, says Krystal Thrailkill, vice chancellor of Academic Affairs, University of Arkansas-Rich Mountain.
The college maintains an Office of Workforce Development that contacts local businesses on a regular basis to check on their changing needs. And the Career Pathways office sponsors an annual job fair that brings businesses to campus for students to actively seek employment.
Thrailkill says manufacturing-related and health care programs are among the college’s fastest-growing programs as those industries rapidly expand. A welding program was expanded to twice its original size, medical billing and coding continues to grow, and licensed practical and registered nursing programs are at full capacity.
Technical colleges, including Vista College in Fort Smith and Arkansas Tech University-Ozark are also preparing students for jobs in high-growth technology and health-related fields.
The Arkansas Tech University Career Center in Russellville offers free dual enrollment courses in 10 program areas — including automation systems technology, automotive service technology, computer engineering and construction technology — for the region’s high school students. The center partners with Arkansas Tech University-Ozark so that students’ credits are concurrent, allowing them to graduate high school with a certificate or college credit toward a degree.
“Most manufacturing jobs — actually most jobs today — are technology based,” says Brandy Wells, career development facilitator-ADHE Regional Workforce Grant, Arkansas Tech Career Center. “As a mom and as a professional, I know that a four-year degree is not the only path to a career and for some students, it’s not the best path.”
Wells says the center hosts business leaders who meet with students and introduce them to various career paths. Students also go on field trips to area businesses so they can see first-hand what it’s like to work in various fields.
High Marks for Opportunity
Western Arkansas is also home to Webster University, a private university with campuses around the world, and John Brown University, a private Christian liberal arts university.
Thrailkill says access to such a diverse higher education community not only contributes to economic development but also quality of life.
“The more students know, the more opportunities they have available. The skills students learn are transferable to areas outside of employment,” she says. “A college education improves thinking skills, health awareness, environmental consciousness and political knowledge. In short, it makes better citizens as well as better coworkers. Who doesn’t want that in their neighbors?”