Arkansas is making progress in building a stronger pipeline and placing “new steps of change” that support everyone. To move forward, the state must continue to build strategies that develop, retain, and recruit youth and young adults of all races and socioeconomic statuses.


by Shun Robertson

The Place: a small state with rich natural resources, six Fortune 500 companies, and some of the nation’s deepest poverty

The Challenge: ensuring that young people who start down the path of education and training complete and meet expectations of an evolving labor market

Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: local employer engagement and efforts to spread innovative entrepreneurial practices

“The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day, you may have the courage to look up and out…”

These words, spoken by Maya Angelou in the poem On the Pulse of Morning, were delivered during Arkansas native and former President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The poem conveys strong images of hope for the future, while acknowledging the struggles of the past. Communities across Arkansas, from the farmlands of the Delta to the Ozark Mountains in the northwest, have found the space to look forward and step into a new day, but still struggle to overcome population decline and economic hardship. Arkansas may have one of the smallest populations of the Southern states, but its warm and friendly residents know that collaboration increases their capacity to achieve results. Promising efforts at both the local and state levels demonstrate a willingness and commitment to address the critical issues that will shape Arkansas’ economic and social progress.

Here, we highlight three distinct regions of Arkansas—Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas, and the Delta—and their efforts to “place new steps of change” in the state’s education-to-career pipeline. Looking not just at one community, but at a whole state, one sees different landscapes and can consider opportunity at a different scale. In the east, the Arkansas Delta is a leading producer of cotton, but has seen decades of decline, with increasing unemployment and poverty rates, and dramatic population loss limiting economic growth and educational opportunities. Along the Missouri border in the northwest, there has been tremendous growth over the past two decades as several Fortune 500 corporations and their suppliers established themselves in the region, including Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt. And in the center of the state is Little Rock, a governmental center, but also an anchor for an array of industries, including information technology and health care.

When looking across the state, Arkansas’ leaders see that:

  • Students who attend college are not graduating
  • Connections among postsecondary institutions and business and industry are often weak
  • Students need more exposure to innovative approaches to entering the labor market of the evolving knowledge economy

Arkansas’ investments in an infrastructure of opportunity are focused on those key transition points in the education-to-career continuum.

6 Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation also contributed support to this report

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

Consider how youth and young adults move from the education system into the labor market. Some move directly from high school into a two-year or four-year postsecondary institution, and then into a good job. For some, the pathway is not as direct. They fall out of the education-to-career pipeline and struggle to find their way back in. They get off-track for numerous reasons, but whatever the causes are, it is critical that they get back on the path to success.

Recognizing that placement in developmental (remedial) courses at the beginning of their postsecondary journey can jeopardize eventual completion, the Arkansas legislature created the College and Career Coach Program, geared toward increasing the number of underrepresented students who complete postsecondary education, especially in the state’s most economically challenged counties. With this program, middle and high school students receive academic tutoring, career counseling, and financial guidance from career coaches on college campuses. Coaches are provided to each county through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds and a grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.6 Early results show the strategy is working. In the first two years of implementation, there was a 17 percent increase in the college-going rate, an almost one point increase in ACT scores, and a 3.5 percentage point decrease in the remediation rate. Pleased with the performance, the General Assembly passed legislation in April 2013 to expand the program throughout the state.

Getting students into postsecondary training is important; equally important is helping them stay engaged. Another statewide program, the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative, is focused on increasing postsecondary attendance and completion rates. Career Pathways is funded annually with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) dollars, providing participants with funding for tuition, books, child care, and transportation. Since 2006, more than 29,000 low-income Arkansans have enrolled in Career Pathways, and more than 30,000 certificates and degrees have been awarded. Upon program completion, participants have an 80 percent job retention rate after 12 months of employment.

Innovative community colleges are a critical element in an infrastructure of opportunity that can achieve local impact with statewide programs. Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas (PCCUA) in Helena, in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, has aligned Career Pathways with another program, the Working Families Success Network (WFSN). In addition to the core components of Career Pathways, in WFSN students receive financial counseling and other work and income supports. Steven Murray, president of PCCUA, says that linking the two programs allowed the college to offer wraparound services, accelerating students’ prospects for educational attainment and economic stability. Working in close partnership with local employers, PCCUA also developed links between curriculum programs and employment opportunities in six fields: business, education, emergency medical technician (EMT), manufacturing, nursing and allied health, and welding.

The final step in the education-to-career pipeline requires navigating the transition point from college completion to employment. “Jobs without people and people without jobs” is a common sentiment heard throughout Arkansas. Business leaders say they have living-wage jobs they cannot fill because candidates do not have the right skills. In response, the Arkansas General Assembly is trying to strengthen the relationship between employers and two-year colleges. This spring, policymakers passed legislation allocating $15 million to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) to restructure and build new workforce training programs that meet the needs of Arkansas businesses. The Fast Track Workforce Initiative creates partnerships between two-year colleges and local employers to ensure that students are trained to industry standards in high-demand areas. Some of the funding came from a reallocation of existing dollars for community colleges. There are mixed feelings among two-year college administrators and economic development leaders on how effective this new system will be. Evelyn Jorgenson, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College, understands that the relationship between her college and local industries is critical to closing the skills gap. “People want jobs but they are not qualified for the jobs. That’s the link that’s missing. That’s the responsibility of our college. We want to help people fill that gap,” she says.

Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, says the gap is a systems issue: “We don’t have the right system to relay information between education and industry. We need the right people to have the right conversations.”

“We need to help people recognize opportunity. They need to see that
better is possible.” — Karama Neal
One example of the right people having the right conversation is the Certified Retail Analyst program at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Before this program, Walmart was losing employees trained on Retail Link—the company’s supplier database—to suppliers who were actively recruiting workers who had inside knowledge on how to use the software. To remedy that, Walmart worked with its suppliers and the college to design a program that would train students on Retail Link. High-demand graduates of this program are placed in jobs with Walmart or one of its suppliers immediately upon credential completion.

Innovating for Job Creation

Education and employment alignment are critical for more than just training programs. Naccaman Williams, director of special initiatives for the Walton Family Foundation, describes the challenge this way: “It’s the chicken or the egg. Businesses want great education before they come, but great education normally comes with business. We need both good businesses and great education.” One organization working to build both educational success and business development in Arkansas is Southern Bancorp Community Partners (SBCP); they’ve been using community and business development to drive economic improvement in the Delta for 25 years. Karama Neal, director of SBCP, knows they are having an impact on the region, noting progress on key indicators like job creation and housing development. She also believes that changing the expectations of Delta residents is instrumental to changing the region. “People set realistic and unrealistic limits for themselves and tend not to go past these limits,” says Neal. “We need to help people recognize opportunity. They need to see that better is possible.” SBCP is helping people see “better is possible” by offering workforce training funds, grant-writing workshops, and small business development so residents can take active roles in creating a more prosperous community.

In North Little Rock, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub is trying to create prosperity by building innovative approaches to help low-income students move from schools into the labor market via entrepreneurship opportunities. Creators of this public-private partnership are developing “a collaborative ecosystem of innovation that drives economic development.” This ecosystem includes three major components:

1. Art Connection. Students start by learning to paint, mainly self-portraits. They learn the basics of project production and develop their artistic talents. Students also learn soft skills such as showing up for work and listening to peers and supervisors. After completing the painting course, students transition to other studios at the hub, including sculpture and computer-aided design.

2. Launch Pad. When students have a business idea, they develop prototypes here. Staff also plan to build a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) lab as part of this space with state-of-the-art equipment.

3. The Silver Mine. This entrepreneurship/incubation space is for young adults who have more than just an idea. Here they can build their idea into something real.

John Gaudin, a member of the Innovation Hub’s Board of Directors, says people all over the state, including the governor, are assessing whether this incubation model is replicable in other areas of Arkansas. “This is an opportunity for students to access the latest and greatest in manufacturing—access they would not have otherwise.”

While many Southern states focus on recruiting big businesses, Arkansas is recruiting from within. “Everybody wants to cut a ribbon on a big manufacturing plant,” says State Representative and Innovation Hub Executive Director Warwick Sabin. “It’s less sexy to focus on small business. Most of our businesses are small business. They are more sustainable. We’ll always be outbid for large industrial projects because other states will always have more money. It’s a losing and outdated strategy.” To cultivate start-up business development, Arkansas must provide more youth and young adults with opportunities to foster their entrepreneurial skills—opportunities like the Innovation Hub.

Providing Support and a Voice to Move Forward

Even with statewide efforts and local innovation, there still are gaps between those who can easily access the education-to-career pipeline and those who are disconnected from it. For nonprofit leaders in Little Rock, closing gaps means addressing intergenerational poverty. Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, describes it as a Catch-22. “There is a recognition that we need to do more for the far too many who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he says. “The odds are stacked against them. We need to do things to break the cycle of poverty, but until we do that they are not going to be in a position to succeed.” Huddleston’s organization believes that helping youth succeed in the short and long term is the way to break the cycle. They are working to ensure that all children have access to health care and that basic needs are met. Since Arkansas expanded Medicaid in 2013, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of uninsured youth. While he is excited about this momentum, he also knows they are not going to cut child poverty rates in half overnight.

While many Southern states focus on recruiting big businesses, Arkansas is recruiting from within. To cultivate start-up business development, Arkansas must provide more youth and young adults with opportunities to foster their entrepreneurial skills—opportunities like the Innovation Hub.
A different opportunity gap is evident in Northwest Arkansas. Despite strong economic growth, many young adults have been left out of the region’s success. These dynamics are complicated by a large immigrant population in the region, mainly Latino and Pacific Islander. Without training for competitive skills, there will be many youth pursuing the same low-wage work as their parents. Mireya Reith, the executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition (AUCC), wants to improve upward mobility for immigrants. She understands that systems-change takes time and advocacy. Her Fayetteville-based nonprofit organization created Change Agents, a one-year leadership program that encourages first- and second-generation immigrants to lead community-building efforts across the state. In the past two years, 55 change agents completed the program and AUCC expects 50 more graduates in the next year. AUCC is trying to bring new, often unheard voices to state-level policy discussions and decisions through broad-based coalitions and advocacy campaigns. Reith says that businesses and government agencies are starting to offer seats at the table for immigrants, but those seats have limitations. “They are fine sitting around the table with an educated immigrant without an accent. We’re trying to push Arkansas decision makers out of their comfort zone to recognize immigrants as equal residents, who bring value and whose integration is necessary for the state to achieve its potential,” she says. “We want them to also sit at tables with undocumented workers.”

questions and next steps

Arkansas’ formula for sealing leaks in the education-to-career pipeline is getting the right mix of government involvement, collaboration between educational institutions and business and industry, and participation from private and nonprofit organizations. And the formula shows signs of promise. In the past, Arkansas high school graduates went away for college and never returned. The goal now is to get these students to come back. Steven Murray thinks it’s starting to happen. “Students from Arkansas are returning after college graduation,” Murray says. “And young adults are moving here from other places. They see an opportunity here to make a real difference.”

For Arkansas to move forward, the state must continue to build strategies that develop, retain, and recruit youth and young adults of all races and socioeconomic statuses. State-level policies and the adaptation of these policies at the local level have the potential to change the outcomes for more young Arkansans. According to Rich Huddleston of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, “Social mobility is being played out in the education arena.” If this is true, then a strong education-to-career pipeline is essential to creating economic advancement opportunities for youth and young adults from all regions of the state. Arkansas is making progress in building a stronger pipeline and placing “new steps of change” that support everyone—for the state’s economy of today and tomorrow.

“Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation” takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds. Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

Read more of the report.