Apprenticeship Expansion Spreads to Northeast Arkansas

A man standing behind a brown podium next to a panel of 5 people at a black-cloth covered table talking to an audience.

By David Wallace

Arkansas’ recent progress in expanding registered apprenticeship to reverse a widening skills gap is worth noting, and it’s one of the things spotlighted at a recent forum for employers in Jonesboro.

In the not-quite five years since Asa Hutchinson took office as governor, Arkansas has nearly doubled the number of apprentices, up to approximately 6,300. And programs are available in the newly constituted state Department of Commerce to help more employers continue that expansion into new and different fields. Spreading that word was the purpose of Employers Growing Talent Through Apprenticeship, a half-day informational forum sponsored by the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, the Office of Skills Development and the state Office of Apprenticeship Nov. 12 in Jonesboro.

“Everybody here can attest to the tremendous skills gap that exists in this country,” U.S. Dept. of Labor Office of Apprenticeship State Director Lee Price told the nearly 75 in attendance on the campus of Arkansas State University. “We’ve told everybody for years and years that you have to go to college, you have to get that degree. Now, most people don’t work in their degree field anymore, even if they go get that expensive degree. And then they’ve got student loans they have to pay off, some of them for life.

“We don’t do that. We give you an incredible career based on skills that you’re taught on the job, and—oh, by the way—you’re paid while you’re doing the learning,” Price said.

Apprenticeship programs registered by DOL combine mentored training on the job with technical classroom instruction. Apprentices get a base of theoretical understanding to inform the company- and job-specific skills they’re learning in the work setting. They earn at least one wage increase as they progress through the program and then earn a nationally recognized credential when they complete the apprenticeship and become a regular employee.

Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a strong supporter of work-based education, further set the context of an economic landscape that makes registered apprenticeship an increasingly attractive option for employers trying to locate labor talent.

“For decades, we were in a situation where companies would just sort of wait for the graduates. Well, that doesn’t work anymore,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t work because the economy is far more complex, far more diverse. The economy got so complex that government couldn’t keep up. Government’s not nimble—I’m talking educational institutions and state agencies, whatever—government is not good at going fast and keeping up with change.”

Griffin described two critical lanes in which the public and private sectors travel in parallel.

“Every private company can’t go build their own two-year school, obviously. So, there’s a lane for the government there, but there’s also a critical lane for the private sector… If you have any sort of workforce or educational system as it relates to training workers that does not include the private sector, it will fail, because ultimately our goal is to produce people who will work in the private sector… So, I would encourage you to lean forward into this.”

In Arkansas, funds from a variety of sources can support registered apprenticeship programs. Employers can take advantage of USDOL grants administered by ADWS, and OSD controls an additional $2.4-mil. in state appropriations dedicated to apprenticeship training costs through the state Office of Apprenticeship.

Little Rock-based First Orion is a relatively new tech firm that took advantage of that assistance in the spring of 2018. After implementing apprenticeship programs for software, IOS and Android developers, the company grew from 130 employees to 199. First Orion Director of Training and Development Melissa Johnston represented First Orion at the Employers Growing Talent event.

“There’s a large gap between what they’ve learned in college, or what they may have learned in a previous job, and what we do,” said Johnston, who served on a panel with other employers and training providers.” So, this is a great way for us to teach them what they need to know to work in our company. And, also, we want to help create talent from within Arkansas. So, we primarily hire apprentices from Arkansas because we want to keep talented people here, and it’s been a great success for us.”

Previously, First Orion was taking about a year to get new employees up-to-speed on the job. Johnston said the more formalized apprenticeship program has shortened that time frame to ten weeks. And, the return on investment has been great.

“I think making them a part of the company—from day one, they’re an employee—contributes to their retention,” she said. “And by the time they go join their team full-time, they’re ready to go. In fact, one of our apprentices who completed our last program continued working on his capstone project (assigned during training), and it’s turned into something that has greatly benefited our client, T-Mobile, and has saved us a lot of money. So, he’s already made an impact just based on some of the work he was doing as a project during the (apprenticeship) program.”

Jonathan Bibb sees the boost apprenticeship gives retention and worker loyalty as director of the Arkansas Career Training Institute in Hot Springs, which specializes in employment training for people with disabilities. Before taking that job, he worked for several years in the state Office of Apprenticeship.

“When you’re an employer and you invest in that person, they see that investment, and they see the commitment that you have toward the individual, and you build them into the culture of the organization,” Bibb said during the panel discussion. “And, typically, they stay much longer. That’s enhanced with people with disabilities. They’re not often given a lot of opportunities, and when they are given those opportunities to work with employers that they see invest in them, they stay for long periods of time.”

Another panelist, Iliana Sutton of Fayetteville, provided the perspective of a business owner new to the apprenticeship concept. Her unique company, Aha! Interpreting Solutions, contracts with more than 150 bilingual interpreters in a myriad of work settings around the country. Her first cohort to train bilingual workers is set to begin in early 2020.

“Being a small business, having to do all those things that a business has to do, we’re hoping with this apprenticeship program we can train those individuals and mold them into what we need,” Sutton said. “And, on top of that, show them the passion. Because we know that you can hire anyone, and if they don’t have the passion, they’re not going to stick around.”

The shortages of workers in the increasingly technical world of manufacturing make “grow your own” approaches to talent development almost mandatory. Future Fuel Chemical Company in Batesville established an apprenticeship program in the early 1980s. Training Manager James Wilson said during the panel discussion 2.4-million advanced manufacturing jobs—those that involve some form of computer-based automation—will go unfilled in the next decade “because there’s no one who can do the job. The apprentice program can stop that at your business” Wilson said.

Entering into such a program is not without some level of commitment. Apprenticeships don’t organize themselves, and then there’s the documentation required by the federal government of the apprentices’ progress. Also, the company has to divert at least some human resources to education and mentorship.

“That’s the challenge, for sure, in that (regular employees) still have their day job in addition to creating curriculum, teaching and mentoring the apprentices,” First Orion’s Johnston said. “What we have found is that people are asking to do it now. They’re viewing it as a leadership opportunity for themselves, so it’s great career growth for them, too.”

Johnston said since the onboarding time frame is much shorter and more thorough than the informal, year-long, one-on-one training the company was doing previously, the program is extremely popular among staff members.

“Our company buy-in is great when it comes to apprenticeship. They want it to be successful, so they are very willing to jump in and help with it,” she said.

In just a year and a half, it has already become successful enough to move First Orion to change its approach to internships. It now recruits interns as potential apprentices “because we see that as a great way for career growth and entry into the organization,” Johnston said.

While a strength of apprenticeship training is customization to a company’s specific job procedures and corporate culture, it doesn’t have to go it alone. Multiple employers can join forces to support a shared registered apprenticeship program, while still protecting trade secrets. Lonnie Emard, the host for the panel discussion at the Jonesboro event, drove home that point. Emard doubles as apprenticeship consultant for OSD and apprenticeship director for the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, a new organization formed to promote the tech industry in the state. Started by Acxiom founder Charles Morgan, the non-profit serves as a bridge for Arkansas startup firms and other tech-heavy corporations to talent and forward-thinking training options.

“Think of a company that says, ‘Yeah, I need one of those software engineers; I need an IOS developer,’” Emard described. “’I only need one. And I really can’t afford to run a training program—I don’t have anybody internally to do it,’ right? So, the idea is the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences as an intermediary… pulling together multiple employers that say, ‘I need one,’ ‘I need two,’ putting them together, finding the best training provider… matching them up and saying, ‘Here’s your training provider. We’re going to help you find this audience of candidates, and here are multiple employers who are all going to use that same program.’”

That kind of connecting organization to help businesses implement and operate their own work-based training programs may soon become more prominent in Arkansas, with the backing of state government.

“If you’re working with IT apprenticeships, how do we work with ACDS and drive folks there to connect you (with a training partner)—whether that’s a two-year college or a four-year college or university, or perhaps a third-party provider?,” asked OSD Director Cody Waits, who will oversee a new comprehensive apprenticeship office. “And if you’re an apprentice or an employer trying to find this kind of training, how do we create this mindset of, ‘Here’s who you go to for IT apprenticeships; here’s who you go to for manufacturing apprenticeships, for healthcare apprenticeships’?”

The meeting got the attention of several attendees. Ritter Communications is looking to fill a wide variety of positions as it grows across northwest, northeast and central Arkansas and into western Tennessee, and company representative Sarah Ware said they’ll now consider how to incorporate registered apprenticeships into their plans.

“We understand that the talent we’re looking for is evolving as technology is evolving,” Ware said, ”and in order to keep up and be able to serve our customers in all our market areas, growing talent in the areas where we have locations is very important to us. We don’t want to have to recruit outside of the state. We want to be able to recruit local, home-grown folks.”

ADWS and OSD are continuing follow-up discussions about registered apprenticeship first steps with Ritter and other companies present at the Employers Growing Talent forum.