Infrastructure in place, OSD looks to the bright possibilities of 2022
In 2015, Governor Asa Hutchinson established the Office of Skills Development (OSD), a division of the Arkansas Department of Commerce, and in 2019 expanded the agency’s role as the state’s comprehensive apprenticeship office, leading to greater focus on expansion activities across industry sectors and enhanced collaboration efforts with education and private sector business.
Over the past couple of years, we at OSD have made great strides working with our partners at the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. What we’ve been engaged in might be called “system building”—developing these processes and employer connections and relationships and building all that out in an effort to do what we’ve hoped to do ever since ACDS was launched in 2018, which was to get Arkansas employers to realize that apprenticeships—whether in IT, manufacturing, healthcare, or what have you—are a viable and valuable supplemental staffing strategy. And we’re seeing that in spades. In OSD’s 2020-21 fiscal year, Arkansas ranked second in the nation in newly created IT apprenticeships, and we notched a 113 percent increase in overall apprenticeships. Today there’s a lot of interest in the healthcare field. Hospitals are looking at apprenticeships, whether it’s LPNs or graduate registered nursing programs—a resident nursing program essentially made up of apprentices.
The point is, the infrastructure is coming together, which is proof that our long-term strategy is paying off. We had to do it this way. All along, Arkansas’ K-12 community has been a main target of our Skills Development work, but you can’t start building those pipelines from the elementary and middle schools and high schools across the state until you’ve got the registered apprenticeship programs, complete with topnotch training providers, in place.
And now we have. ACDS, created as part of the governor’s computer science initiative and the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Advancing the Economic Competitiveness of Data Analytics and Computing in Arkansas, is our industry intermediary for IT apprenticeships. In that role, they’ve not only established and refined the apprenticeship programs themselves, but they’ve also provided us a single point of contact for both employers and the employee talent pool across the state. Now we can go to our K-12 partners and say, “You know, more than ever, small to medium businesses are trying to source IT talent.” Heck, even our large corporations—and we have some major ones—are now sourcing apprenticeship talent.
I called this piece “Turning Opportunities Into Outcomes” for a reason. We’ve long known that we have myriad potential opportunities to provide new and enhanced pathways for Arkansans to improve their lot in life, but for all the reasons I mentioned above, we weren’t quite ready to turn those opportunities into outcomes. Now, thanks to our partnership with ACDS, we’re poised to put many of our strategic initiatives into place in the coming year.
I see us going to those secondary career centers around the state, those high school computer science programs as part of the governor’s computer science initiative, and saying, “Listen, not only can you get a computer science education through K-12, not only can you get dual credit enrollment through a post-secondary institution, but you can also begin earning a wage now with one of the hundreds of employers that we have in the state of Arkansas who are looking to adopt apprenticeships while you’re going through that pathway.” I see us telling the parents of our high school students, “If your child is interested in computer science or a career in IT or information systems, whatever language you want to use, there’s an opportunity for them to start gaining real-world experience as an employee of a company working on work-based learning projects at the age of 18 years—or even younger. In order to be an apprentice, you have to be at least 16 years old, so we should be doing that at that age. And that’s our goal for moving into 2022.”
Beyond the specific IT pursuits, we at OSD have a strategic initiative across all our 30 career centers state-wide, and part of my plan for the coming year is to get a third of those to adopt a youth apprenticeship program or a pre-apprenticeship program so that we can have students engaged with program sponsors, with employers, and earning a wage and gaining that real-world experience even as they’re working toward getting their high school diploma. It’s really a win-win for all Arkansans, and that’s one of the things we’re really going to push in 2022.
Cody Waits is the Director of Arkansas’ s Office of Skills Development