IT careers cut across all industries, and Arkansas makes it easy to find your path to success

By Bill Yoder

For too many years, Christina Eichelberger had been stuck in some form of “the call center.” Whether she was phoning customers of State Farm with their claim results, or calling potential car buyers to come in for a test drive, or contacting truck drivers all over the country to help them get the most out of the J.B. Hunt 360 mobile app, she was still at arm’s length from the kind of career she wanted. “When I hit thirty,” says Christina, “I said, ‘Something’s gotta give. I need to pick up a skill.’”

She vowed to get into tech by any means necessary. Her first step in that direction was to sign up for a certificate program in front-end development at the University of Arkansas Global Campus. Then, while she was in that course, one of her classmates came in one day talking about his new apprenticeship with Affirma, the business solutions company. “His apprenticeship came with a salary and benefits,” says Christina. “I didn’t know that was a possibility. I thought my options were just internships or entry level. Until then, I hadn’t heard the term apprenticeship in this capacity. When I thought of apprenticeships, I thought of plumbing.”

Christina immediately got in touch with Affirma and went through the interview process with them. “That’s when I found out there was this really great program from the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences—ACDS—that was helping people get into tech here in Arkansas,” says Christina. Soon she, too, was an apprentice for Affirma, learning the SharePoint skillset. When her apprenticeship training is over, she’ll be calling on Affirma’s customers to help them make their businesses more successful. Christina is finally on her path.

THERE’S A LOT more to learn about Registered Apprenticeships, as they’re formally called, and I hope you’ll read ACDS Apprenticeship Director Lonnie Emard’s piece on that subject on page 40. Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little about tech careers in Arkansas and the various routes to get you there.

First of all, you should know that ACDS was formed as a result of Governor Asa Hutchinson’s 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission on “advancing the economic competitiveness of data analytics and computing in Arkansas.” We’re a non-profit, and our job is to work with our partners—government, education, and corporate Arkansas—to prepare our state’s workforce for well-paying 21st-century careers.

Today, every company is a tech company to one degree or another. J.B. Hunt isn’t a trucking company, it’s a technology company with a focus on logistics. Tyson Foods feeds the world, thanks to their algorithm-driven supply chain on either side of the production line. Walmart is the original data-centric retailer. And orbiting around the big boys is an increasingly wide range of smaller businesses that provide all kinds of tech services to these and other companies. Information Technology is not just the future, it’s the present—even in agriculture, one of our state’s key industries. Last year we profiled an Arkansas farmer in our ACDS newsletter. “You may think that tractor of mine is just a tractor,” he said. “But it’s not—it’s a computer on wheels.”

All of the above is why we at ACDS are working with the folks at The Arkansas Times and East Initiative to publish ITArkansas. And why we especially want to get it into the hands of young people who are, or soon will be, entering the working world. We want you to know that you don’t have to wait until you’re 30 to get into the tech world. No matter where you are or what your situation, there’s an IT career just waiting for you—right now.

In Arkansas, we have 10,000 tech jobs to fill and only 700 tech grads a year. That means we have to get creative, and I’m proud to say that ACDS and our partners are thinking outside the proverbial box.

In the past, when companies wanted to hire new people at a professional level, most HR departments insisted on a minimum of a four-year degree. If they couldn’t find the person they were looking for through the usual channels, they turned to an outside staffing firm to fill that unique need. It was slow, and predictable, and it solved one hiring problem at a time for a surprisingly long while. Then Information Technology knocked the business world off its axis, and suddenly the old model wouldn’t cut it anymore. The demand for IT talent is just too great.

So where is all this needed tech talent going to come from? Our answer is, Look around you. Look in the mirror. It can, and will, come from anywhere.

But for that to happen, both potential employers and potential employees must recognize that we’re in a paradigm shift—one that requires us all to view the world with new eyes. Once we open our minds to it, we start to see lots of new channels of potential candidates.

If you’re an employer reading this: Look within your own company. There may be people there with IT aptitude, not to mention deep domain knowledge of your company, who just need to be trained in the technical skills for an IT role. And if you’re a high school graduate wondering how to move forward in this strange new world—or a self-taught computer geek working a side job to support your passion, or a retired military person looking for a new start, or a rural kid confused about your options, or a minority worker feeling marginalized, or even a four-year college grad in a field like Sociology or English Literature who’s worried about your job prospects—we have good news for you. You don’t need to be a Statistics major to have an IT career. You just need the right aptitude.

At ACDS, it’s our mission to be a catalyst for success, and we’ve developed a licensed assessment tool that can be customized for data analytics, or cybersecurity, or software development, or any of the IT occupations. It’s essentially a pass-fail—do you have the potential to learn this stuff, or not? If you do, you can earn while you learn as a Registered Apprentice at one of the 150-and-counting Arkansas employers we work with.

But even if you don’t pass the assessment test, all is not lost. As I write this, some 150,000 Arkansans have filed for unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we at ACDS have been huddling with our state Commerce Department’s Office of Skills Development to figure out how to bring this potential supply of tech labor into the IT funnel. By the time you read this, we will have offered all 150,000 the opportunity to come in and take our assessment test, and our guess is that about 20 percent, or 30,000 people, will want to do that. Of those who take the test, we estimate that some 20 percent will score above the threshold.

For those who score below that mark, we’re going to point them toward a free “pre-apprenticeship.” There’s a catalog of some 20 online courses, and this pre-apprenticeship training will give them the tools to come back and go into an IT apprenticeship.

This is just an example of the many career pathways available to all Arkansans today. Besides the traditional ways into a career, there are now numerous IT boot camps out there to help Arkansans land their dream career, or change careers for a better, more fulfilling fit. For those who take the Community College route, we’re working to make sure those 60 IT credits will be accepted when they graduate to a four-year program. We want all Arkansans to be able to enjoy the benefits of an IT career, no matter how they get there.

In this inaugural issue of ITArkansas, you’ll meet and hear from people at the top of the IT game in our state. You’ll learn what they do and how they got where they are. You’ll find out where the jobs are and get a sense of how much they pay. You’ll meet entrepreneurs who opted not to go to Silicon Valley, but instead stayed home and built their own successful tech companies. You’ll read about people using technology to make the world a better place. You’ll learn how to burnish your resume and how to interview effectively. You’ll get a course in “soft skills” and a Life Lesson on how to do and be and act once you’re in the working world.

So welcome to ITArkansas. Welcome to your tech career.

Bill Yoder is Executive Director of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences.

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