Building Empires Through the Skilled Trades

Posted by: JustinFreeman on Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Guest Blog Post by Dr. Evelyn E. Jorgenson, President of NorthWest Arkansas Community College Michael Dewberry makes a convincing case for community college apprenticeships as a pathway to entrepreneurship. “Where else can you invest $2,500, learn a career and build an empire?” he asks. Dewberry is coordinator of building sciences at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, which offers non-credit apprenticeship programs in electrical, plumbing, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). An apprenticeship is being added in ironworks. There’s high demand for such skills in Northwest Arkansas. The metropolitan statistical area is on pace to become one of the nation’s 100 largest MSAs within three years, according to an analysis by the Northwest Arkansas Council, an economic development agency serving the region. Approximately 31 people are being added to the region’s population daily, and that’s fueling growth in the housing market. During the first half of 2017, the number of building permits issued rose almost 11 percent over the same period in 2016. Like the region it serves, NWACC’s building sciences programs are growing, and growing quickly. The college started 2015 with 145 students in the three apprenticeship programs — electrical, plumbing and HVAC. At the start of the fall semester 2017, apprenticeship numbers were at 207, said Keith Peterson, the college’s dean of workforce development. Here’s the typical progression in an apprenticeship. An employee hires on with a local electrical business and within 30 days, the new employee must enroll in a four-year apprenticeship program. After completing the apprenticeship, the employee takes a licensing exam and becomes a journeyman electrician. After three years, the individual can take another exam and become a master electrician. Once those steps are completed, the electrician often may establish his own business, Dewberry said. He recounts the success story of a female student who went through the HVAC program. She later established her own business and hired new employees. She sent them to the program she knew best — at NWACC. On weekday evenings, the parking lot outside the Shewmaker Center for Workforce Technologies is filled with vans and trucks from local businesses — HVAC operations, plumbers and electrical service businesses. “We see it all the time,” Dewberry said. New apprentices come from businesses where the owner/operator trained at the college a few short years ago. It may not be the traditional path to entrepreneurship, but at NWACC, apprenticeships are leading to another generation of business owners and entrepreneurs scrambling to meet marketplace demands. NWACC is an accredited training and education facility of the National Center for Construction Education & Research. The National Center provides curriculum and students earn an NCCER credential that they can carry with them wherever they go. In the relationship with NCCER, new curriculum modules being rolled out this year will have increased emphasis on business management and business ethics. Every year the students are in the apprenticeship program that business component will be embedded in their studies. In addition to learning skills of the trade such as plumbing, the apprentice also will be gaining the business chops to be able to lead his or her own operation someday. The college also is working with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education to establish a technical certificate in the trades that also will emphasize business know-how. In 2016, the college launched an associate degree program in construction technology, and it’s booming, according to Peterson, the workforce development dean. The apprenticeship programs and construction technology studies have expanded so much that the college faces a space crunch. In August, Arkansas legislators approved the construction of an integrated design lab for the college’s campus in Bentonville. Construction should begin in 2018, and the building will enable students and faculty in the college’s construction technology program and some of its fine arts studies to find new opportunities for collaboration. At its core, the IDL will bring together communication and arts, workforce development and entrepreneurialism to focus on the key commonality of “making.” When construction technology moves to the new building, that should free up space in the workforce building for the burgeoning apprenticeship programs. Solving the puzzle of how to accommodate growing demand is a challenge NWACC officials will accept gladly. “What a good problem to have!” Peterson said.


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