Q & A with Jon Chadwell: February 2023

A headshot of Jon Chadwell, an older man with gray hair, wearing a bright purple polo.

Jon Chadwell,

Executive Director,

Newport Economic Development Commission

Newport, AR

A KEY WATCHWORD at ACDS is diversity. So when we heard about the Newport Economic Development Commission’s bold new plan to train long-untapped segments of their Northeast Arkansas population for careers, including in IT, we just had to sit down with Executive Director Jon Chadwell and get him to tell us all about it. It’s an uplifting story, in every sense of the word.


I understand a lot’s been happening in your neck of the woods since we last talked. That was a couple of years ago, when your Tech Depot had just opened.

Yes. We’ve had almost 200 people go through the Tech Depot, taking at least one class. And we’ve started construction on our permanent IT workforce training building, a $3.1 million project, most of it funded by an Economic Development Administration grant. We’re hoping that new building will be ready by August.

I also understand you have some interesting plans to expand your local workforce. Tell me about that.

Sure. We’ve got a proposal in right now to the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, and we’re waiting to hear from them. But before I tell you about our plan, let me explain why and how we came up with it in the first place. We didn’t just pull it out of the sky. It started with data.

Here in Jackson County, we’re one of the Arkansas counties with the highest percentage of women who are not participating in the workforce. At any given time, 65 percent of the women who live in this county are not in the workforce, and there are a variety of reasons for that. But when 54 percent of the population of your county is female, and 65 percent of them are not participating in the workforce, you have a lot of workforce potential that’s going untapped.

Of course, you’ll have some retired ladies who don’t want to continue working. You also have a population of ladies who are of a financial status that they don’t have to work, and they prefer not to. But then you’ve got this population of ladies who, maybe when they were 16 or 17 years old, they had a kid. Then maybe they graduated from high school at 18, and at 19 they had another kid. And they go out to look for work with nothing but a high school diploma, or maybe not even that, and what they qualify for is $11 or $11.50 an hour. Well, daycare is $160 a week. If you’re making $11 an hour and you’re trying to put two kids in daycare, your entire check goes for daycare. You don’t have anything left.

A lot of the people who fall into that category work the cash economy. Maybe they keep somebody’s kids on the side, or maybe they clean houses for cash—there’s just a wide range of things they do. But it’s a struggle. It doesn’t pay that well and they’re constantly struggling to stay afloat, much less get ahead. There are just all these factors that keep them kind of trapped in this situation.

But with IT being a growing field—almost every type of company needs some kind of IT person, and that work can be done remotely—it opens up a whole world of job opportunities that pay significantly higher, if the people have the training. So we want to target single parents and do classes in the evening. They’ll come to the Tech Depot and bring their kids, and we’ll have a meal prepared for the students and their children. If they need transportation, we’ll contract with one of our local churches to pick them up and take them home.

One of our ideas is that during this mealtime we’ll also bring in people from the community who will be resources for them. Just to eat with them, visit with them, get to know them. Then the students will go into a room where they’ll begin to get computer and IT training. We’ve got really four different kinds of training. One is for folks who’ve had zero work experience; this will be an introduction to how to show up, how to dress, how to answer the phone—the basic workplace skills. For people who already have those skills, they’ll have a course in IT fundamentals, taking them through the basics of computers. If they already have that, we’ll start them on Microsoft certification. And then, for those who really have an aptitude, we’ll probably do Comp TIA, A-Plus certification.

How many people will you have in each class?

We’re going to try to keep the class size small—10 to 12 students maximum—because we want to do a lot of hands-on teaching. We’re looking at maybe twice a week in the evenings, and we can complete each one of the four components in anywhere from seven to 12 weeks. While the students are in class, we’re going to hire three or four certified teachers who want to make a little extra money and they’ll take the children into another area of the building and do reading recovery, homework assistance, and STEM education with the kids.

That will have multiple long-range impacts. First, the kids will get help with their classwork, so it’ll make them more likely to succeed in school. But, also, the young children will be watching their parents learn, so it will create an atmosphere in which learning is cool—learning is something we do. Finally, we’re going to work very closely with ACDS to try to find placement for these graduates as soon as we can.

So, single parents are one population we’ll be working with.

Tell me about the others.

At the same time, we’ll continue to work directly with individual companies through ACDS’ apprenticeship program—that’s our second population. The third population will be comprised of people enrolled in a substance abuse recovery program. We have multiple recovery programs here in Northeast Arkansas that are yearlong programs, so our idea is to get involved the last three months of an individual’s recovery and have them come to class to get skills while they’re finishing their drug rehab program. They can then graduate from the program while also graduating with skills that give them a much better opportunity at a higher paying job. That might also help prevent some of the relapse issues that they face during this time.

The fourth population is people who’re transitioning out of prison. We have a couple of prisons here in Newport, a men’s facility and a women’s facility, with about 600 inmates in each. We also have several transition homes where they come and live for three or four months while they’re getting used to being back in society. If we can tap into them during that time, training them and elevating their skills, that increases the likelihood that they’ll be able to succeed and maybe not get in a place where they end up back in prison.

The last population we’re going to work with is kids. Throughout the year, we’re going to have camps for different age groups, and they’ll get to learn about all kinds of tech stuff—3D printing, robotics, micro-coding. In fact, a couple of students who got certified through our Comp TIA class are going to be teachers for these kids.

One cool thing we did in our Comp TIA class was go to the local recycling center where people bring their old computers. We took all those old computers down to our Tech Depot and the teacher had those students take apart every one of them, diagnose what was wrong, take those parts off, find another computer that had those parts that were still good, and rebuild computers that work again. I think they built eight working computers out of the 20-something discarded computers that we brought in.

So one of my ideas for this summer, if I can pull it off, is to collect as many of these old computers as possible and then get somebody who’ll come in and work with teens to rebuild them. Only when the teens get done with the camp, they can take the computer home with them. A computer they built. So anyway, those are some of our plans.

Sounds like you and your team are reinventing economic development!

Economic development has changed immensely since I started doing it. Now I’m working on medical marijuana and cryptocurrency and everything else, in addition to manufacturing. We just laugh at some of the things that we would never have imagined working on, and now they’re part of our regular vocabulary. We’ve learned on the job—it’s all about brainstorming with other people.

A few years ago, the Tech Depot wasn’t on my radar. Technology was, and we knew we wanted to try to find a way to attract technology companies. All the research that I had read said that the number one thing for technology companies is technology workers. They’re much less sensitive to specific site requirements—if you’ve got broadband and you’ve got employees, you’ve got 99 percent of what a tech company needs. Whereas if I’m recruiting manufacturing, they’re worried about rail, interstate, what have you—there’s just a lot more factors to getting a manufacturing plant than a tech plant.

So we already had in our mind, Okay, we’re going to have to figure out this workforce puzzle someday. But there’s a program called Community Development Institute at University of Central Arkansas. I knew one of the ladies that ran that, because I teach there. I graduated from it and everybody in our building graduates from it. This lady was friends with the chief of staff of Governor Hutchinson, and that chief of staff called her and said, “Hey, I’ve got a friend named G.B. Cazes. He’s looking for a community that might want to take on tech and be kind of innovative and maybe in a rural community. Who would you recommend he call?”

And she said, “Have him call Jon Chadwell.” So G.B. called, came up here, and we just started brainstorming—you know, back-of-a-napkin stuff. What could we do?

“Well,” G.B. said, “I need to hook you up with ACDS.” And it just started rolling from there. We got a group together, and our planning and development district writes grants for us. They said, “Hey, there’s some money out there for workforce training centers. How would it be to really kind of beef it up and get a really good workforce training center for this IT program you’re doing?” I said that would be fantastic, so they wrote the grant and we got it. After about nine months, the Tech Depot was born.

Then we started thinking about what kind of population we have. Who’s the workforce? That evolved into, Let’s reach out to single parents. Let’s structure a class that fits their schedule and removes the barriers. We had a group from the Clinton School of Public Service come up and work with us two years ago, to actually go out and identify the problems that were facing single parents who weren’t working, who weren’t participating in the workforce. The researchers went out and did some interviews and found that transportation, childcare, and just family responsibilities were the three top obstacles. So we thought, Well, let’s get them here, let’s feed them, and let’s provide childcare for them and see if we can make it work.

You must be in touch with economic development people all across the state. Newport’s not alone in this demographic, I would guess. Is anybody else doing anything like this?

You’re right—this situation, this demographic, is common throughout the state. It’s really common in Eastern Arkansas and probably Southern Arkansas. There are several people that are doing some neat things with different workforce development initiatives. Everybody has their own focus, of course. It might be manufacturing technology or it might be agriculture technology. Lonoke comes to mind—they’ve got a great agriculture technology center, workforce center, that they started down there. But every community has its own priority, depending on what they’ve identified as their primary focus.

In Newport, we’re pretty strong right now in manufacturing. We’re higher than the state average in the percentage of our jobs that are manufacturing. And in our training courses, taught by Arkansas State University, we do a great job focusing on manufacturing technology. But what we’re trying to do is make sure we have a diverse economy, in agriculture and manufacturing. So instead of just reinventing the wheel and supporting the industries that we already have, we thought, Let’s go build another pillar to our economy. And that is technology.