New Organization Created to Support Workforce Development in Arkansas

Upskill NWA will provide educational access and financial support to nontraditional students.

Black man raising hand in class

To meet the growing demand for workers in the region, officials announced the launch of a new organization during the Northwest Arkansas Council’s annual meeting yesterday at the Fayetteville Public Library. 

Upskill NWA is supported by $3 million from the Excellerate Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. While the council has no direct involvement in the creation of the organization, Webster said Upskill NWA will help further the council’s efforts on workforce development. The organization will be incubated at the Excellerate Foundation and is expected to be a standalone nonprofit in three years. 

“The goal is to have 100 students by January in the program and we’re off and rolling, so it’s a pretty aggressive timeline,” said Jeff Webster, president and CEO of the Excellerate Foundation. 

The new program is based on Project QUEST, which originated in San Antonio. For nearly three decades, the workforce strategy has implemented training programs for professional, high-paying jobs that enhance the city’s competitiveness, according to the project’s website.

Upskill NWA will serve nontraditional workers who lack access to the resources they need to make a change in their careers. Approximately two-thirds of the region’s workforce has a bachelor’s degree or less, according to data from the NWA Council.

“The point isn’t to get everyone to a bachelor’s degree. It means that’s about 200,000 people that have room to upskill, to move forward in their careers. That’s who this program really is for,” Webster said.

The new organization will provide educational access and financial support, paying for books, tuition and fees. Students will also receive social services support, which includes assistance with the cost of child care, transportation and counseling. To help with career navigation, students will have weekly classes that focus on developing skills such as how to resolve conflict and communicate effectively.

“The goal here is to bring these families’ households up to an 80 percent AMI (area median income) or higher, or if it’s an individual, increase their income by $15,000 or more,” Webster said.

Initially, Upskill NWA will focus on the health care sector, which has more than 900 positions currently available. Northwest Arkansas has more than 10,000 total job openings, many of them in STEM. While the new organization will help prepare local workers to fill jobs in the future, there’s an immediate need to fill jobs today, said Nate Green, communications director for the NWA Council.

“The council is working to help attract new talent to fill existing positions and build a pipeline of talent for our companies, and that often means looking outside of Arkansas to areas where there’s already a pool of talent with the skills companies need for their success,” Green said. 

In 2018, the council conducted research in top job markets to get an understanding of people’s perception of Northwest Arkansas. Research found that few people were aware of any cities in the region. Those who are aware of the region, often associated it with low, uncompetitive salaries; lack of career progression; lack of recreational activities; and a lack of diversity and tolerance.

In November 2020, the council launched the Life Works Here talent incentive, an effort designed to take advantage of the remote work trend taking place during the pandemic. The program offers $10,000 and a bike or membership to a cultural institution to attract STEAM talent to the region. Officials received more than 30,000 applications from all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 115 countries. The program will support 100 applicants by the end of the year and 27 are already on the ground. 

Building on this effort, the council yesterday unveiled a new regional logo that pairs with the tagline “Life Works Here.” The new brand will be used as part of a national advertising campaign to increase awareness and attract talent, and it will launch this fall in markets across the country.

“We’re going to raise the profile of Northwest Arkansas and show just how perfectly life works here,” Green said. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.