Jefferson County Higher Ed Partners With Industry to Build a Stronger Workforce
Learn how college and university administrators and business leaders in Jefferson County are working together to shape programs and meet workforce needs.
The key to keeping a pipeline of educated and highly skilled talent flowing into Jefferson County’s workforce lies in the symbiotic relationship between the business community and area colleges and universities. Pine Bluff’s Southeast Arkansas College (SEARK), for example, works with both industry leaders and specific companies to assess their needs, then constructs a curriculum and training programs to address those needs. Specifically, the school has identified industrial operations and industrial maintenance as two high-growth fields in the region and has developed programs to funnel graduates into those positions.
“We developed an occupational profile that cross-referenced all the different companies, and we hired an industrial electrician to teach classes,” says Wanda Lindsey, director of workforce development at SEARK. “He’s in the process of developing a curriculum and getting the equipment on campus now so that these needs can be met.” The college also welcomed the return of the county’s adult education and GED program.
“The GED program and the adult education program are crucial to help those who do not have a diploma or do not have the soft skills to go right into the workforce,” Lindsey says. “It helps them with the credentials and also with the skill training to develop those soft skills.” Through its Office of Career Planning and Placement, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) hosts an annual Youth Motivation Task Force, which invites business and industry representatives into classrooms to discuss company needs and employee expectations as well as converse with students about career options, benefits and growth opportunities.
“To ensure that our students are receiving an education that prepares them for current and emerging workforce needs, UAPB engages discipline-related advisory boards for participation in curricula review, assisting in identifying internship and co-op sites and serving as guest lecturers for programs and classes,” says Dr. Mary Benjamin, UAPB Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Economic Development. In addition, Benjamin says students attend professional meetings in their discipline where they interact with potential employees and graduate school representatives, and they engage with business leaders who provide helpful information to aid them in their future professions.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, job creation rates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields are outpacing the growth rate in other fields 2:1, which is why higher education institutions and schools in Jefferson County are heavily invested in preparing students for these jobs. UAPB opened its new state-of-the-art, 29,000-square-foot STEM Building in 2014 to centrally locate its innovative, interdisciplinary science-based programs. The building’s modern design and well-equipped virtual computer lab, along with the physics and biology labs, create a learning environment that mirrors many of the industry labs and graduate school settings that are in students’ futures. “The high-tech jobs of the future will require a high level of teamwork across STEM disciplines, and this facility is infusing a synergistic approach to UAPB STEM majors, which provides them with a heightened advantage,” says Dr. Charles Colen, project director of the UAPB STEM Academy, which develops STEM-based enrichment programs for the university. “Other key components of the UAPB STEM Academy include a First Year Summer Institute/Academy, internships and hands-on research and mentoring experiences. These activities prepare STEM graduates with the skill sets that are in high demand for growing industries.”
Smart Start to High-Tech Careers
UAPB also partners with local schools to help guide students toward STEM careers. For the past 10 years, the university hosted the UAPB Science Fair Exposition for high school juniors and seniors as well as the STEM Saturday Academy, which invites high school teachers and students to the campus to conduct experiments in various STEM disciplines. Jefferson County’s secondary schools also play a pivotal role in preparing students to compete in a high-tech, global economy. The White Hall School District partnered with the EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) Initiative to introduce project-based, service-oriented learning into its curriculum. “EAST prepares students for jobs by giving them the opportunity to work with businesses in our area,” says Meredith Wilkins, White Hall EAST coordinator. “At its heart, EAST is a coordinated effort to provide today’s students with an educational atmosphere that allows them to gain insight into their own abilities to acquire and use information, solve problems and develop valuable experience.”