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Northwest Arkansas group gearing up to upgrade work skills

Higher-pay jobs goal of new effort by Serenah McKay | July 16, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A new organization that aims to prepare area workers for higher-paying jobs was introduced Thursday at the annual meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

Jeff Webster with the Excellerate Foundation said Upskill NWA is designed to help nontraditional students develop the skills and credentials they need to move into higher-paying jobs.

Webster, Excellerate's president and chief executive, said the organization's goal is to have 100 participants when it starts in January. Upskill NWA will help out with tuition, supplies and fees. It also will connect participants to other services such as child care, rental assistance and transportation so they can attend classes regularly.

Upskill NWA will focus on jobs in the health care sector during its initial, three-year rollout. After that, training for careers in areas such as manufacturing and information technology will be added, Webster said.

The success of the program, which Webster said is modeled after a similar one in Texas, will be measured on several key metrics such as increases in household incomes and graduation rates, as well as organizational sustainability.

Excellerate and the Walton Family Foundation together contributed $3 million for this first phase, Webster said. But the hope is that the organization will gain the support of the public and private sectors as well as the philanthropic sector.

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit made up mostly of member businesses, works to improve the region's quality of life in many areas. Developing and retaining skilled workers and attracting new ones drive many of its efforts.

Mervin Jebaraj, director of the University of Arkansas' Center for Business and Economic Research, was not at the meeting but said later that he thinks Upskill NWA will be an important addition to the council's initiatives.

"To sustain the economic growth for the region, we need to continue to invest in a mix of attracting new talent to the area and retaining folks who already call Northwest Arkansas home," Jebaraj said.

Also at Thursday's meeting, Nelson Peacock, council president and chief executive, highlighted some of the work its membership has done over the past year.

These include an initiative to increase physician residencies and fellowships in Northwest Arkansas, in hopes that this will keep more doctors in the area, Peacock said.

He credited Larry Shackelford, president and chief executive officer of Washington Regional Medical Center, and Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor of the Northwest Regional Campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, with leading this effort.

The Arkansas Legislative Council approved nearly $12.5 million in funding for the program's expansion last month. The first slots for applicants will be available in 2023, Peacock said.

He also mentioned the Workforce Housing Center, which the council is "incubating" with support from the Walton Family Foundation. Focused on the issue of housing affordability in Northwest Arkansas, it aims to create well-designed housing options and mixed-income neighborhoods.

Peacock noted that Northwest Arkansas has moved up from fifth place to fourth on U.S. News and World Report's list of best places to live. One of the reasons this happened, he said, is that housing in many cities has become unaffordable for most families.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the meeting's first speaker, talked about the drive to get more Arkansans vaccinated against covid-19 and the "community conversations" he's holding to that end in cities and towns around the state.

Despite running into organized resistance to the vaccines, Hutchinson said these community talks are making a difference. Vaccinations are up 8% since he started these visits, he said.

Hutchinson also said he found "startling disparity" when comparing city vaccination rates with those of the counties in which they are.

For instance, Searcy has a 62% vaccination rate, while only 34% of White County's total population has been vaccinated. Likewise, Rogers has a vaccination rate of 65%, but Benton County's is 40%.

Besides increasing vaccinations, Hutchinson said he continues working to expand broadband internet service into rural parts of the state. Another priority is to lower the state income tax, he said, with the goal of eventually reaching 5.5%.

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