Magazine March 2019

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by Chris Price

Arkansas’ community colleges and technical schools providing a shorter path to jobs, prosperity

Maybe you’ve seen one of the trending internet memes mockingly comparing so-called “professional” jobs with skilled labor. The general theme shows a depressed-looking yuppie with bullet point factoids about what’s making them miserable: got a four-year degree for a job in a saturated market, $100,000 in debt, can’t find a job and looks down on those who didn’t graduate from a four-year university.

Right next to the downtrodden young professional is a photo of a tradesman. Their bullet points read something along the lines of: went to tech school for a job in demand, paid off school in three years, makes $75,000 a year and doesn’t care what the other side thinks.

It’s a message that is starting to resonate with the public, and Arkansas’ community colleges, technical schools and businesses across the state and businesses that are desperately looking for workers couldn’t be happier in exposing the myth that a four-year degree is the only path to a high-earning career.

“Arkansas’ two-year community colleges prepare students for high-wage, high-demand jobs in today’s economy,” says James R. Shemwell, president of Arkansas Northeastern College. “Although the traditional transfer role of two-year colleges – delivering the first two years toward a bachelor degree – remains an important part of the community college operation, the elevation of the vital importance of preparing students for immediate entry into good-paying careers has redefined the role of community colleges over the past 20 years as a one-stop resource for excellent career preparation.”

Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, says companies across the state currently have as many as 60,000 openings for high-paying, skilled jobs, and his organization is working to link businesses to a skilled workforce by promoting the advantages of skilled labor jobs.

“We’re doing a better job of letting kids understand the full range of opportunities that are available to them and the attractiveness of many of these career fields which can be entered with much less than a four-year baccalaureate degree,” Zook says. “You need something beyond high school, certainly, but you can be well along in a career by the time your colleagues finish [four-year] college, if they finish, and then are still looking for a way to make a living.”

The state’s community colleges are working with in-state businesses to develop curricula to address their needs, and where there is a need, there is an opportunity.

“We pride ourselves on our ability to be nimble and responsive to the needs of our business community,” says Lisa Anderson, executive director of planning, effectiveness and public relations at Northwest Arkansas Community College. “One recent example of this is our relatively new Construction Technology program.”

Anderson says the program was developed based on industry feedback that there was a huge demand in our region for front line supervisors in the construction industry. Local construction industry leaders were integrally involved in the development of the curriculum and many funded scholarships for program participants. NWACC celebrated its first group of Construction Technology graduates last May, and the school is currently in the process of building a new Integrated Design Lab on its Bentonville campus which will house the program beginning this fall.

Schools and business groups are also promoting the financial successes their recent graduates have found in the job market and pointing out that high school students can attend local colleges while still in high school at little or no cost. They can earn credits toward earning a certification or even an associate’s degree by the time they graduate 12th grade.

Shemwell says the Arkansas General Assembly’s Economic Security Report revealed ANC leads all in-state colleges and universities in terms of the average full-time wages for associate degree graduates at $51,624 during students’ first year of employment.

“The only bachelor degree full-time wage average that exceeds ANC’s associate degree average is the medical school at UAMS,” Shemwell says.

First-year graduates of the school’s steelmaking program are earning as much as $93,000 annually. Additionally, graduates of its certificate of proficiency program, largely completed in a semester-or-less, have average full-time wages of $40,133, which exceeds the first-year wage average of graduates with a bachelor degree, $39,644, at Arkansas’ public universities.

Anderson says NWACC’s health professions programs are hugely successful and provide great income opportunities for graduates. For example, the full-time average salary for its nursing graduates was $50,500, according to the report, and the nursing program was recently ranked No. 1 in the state among associates degree programs by Registerednursing.org.

“Numerous studies have shown that the biggest skills gap in America’s economy is in technology-based healthcare, manufacturing, and computer-related careers requiring two years of college education or less,” Shemwell says. “Everyone considering pursuing higher education, young people, in particular, should spend some time first researching their interests to make sure that they have an idea of job demand – how likely you are to find work – as well as typical earnings in that field – how much do jobs in this field pay?
“For years, the mantra in education has been ‘the more you learn, the more you earn.’ While that statement may be true within fields of study, it is absolutely not true across fields of study. When one considers the big picture, the return on investment for community colleges to students compares most favorably.”

Anderson agrees, “We are proud of our ability to offer quality instruction at an affordable cost in a flexible environment to our students. We are a very affordable option for students whether for the first two years of a four-year program or an applied science or certificate program geared toward immediate employment.”

Companies across Arkansas are searching for skilled laborers to fill as many as 60,000 open positions. To qualify for these high-paying positions, laborers will need training that doesn’t necessarily require earning a four-year degree from a university. Arkansas’ community colleges and technical schools are providing the next wave of skilled laborers a shorter path to jobs and prosperity with a fraction of the debt. The following list highlights the many distinguished programs offered in Arkansas’ two-year college and technical schools, the in-demand jobs these programs will help students obtain and the certificate or degree awarded at the end of these programs. Also listed alongside each program is the time and financial commitment that come with them, nearly all of which pale in comparison to that of degrees from four-year institutions.

Click on the following charts to read learn more.

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