Dr. Evelyn Jorgenson plans to retire next year as president of the state’s largest two-year community college. During her nine-year run, “Dr. J” — as she is known around campus — presided over NWACC’s growth into the state’s largest two-year school.
Before she steps down, Jorgenson wants to make sure NWACC and other institutions like it continue to help students become career-ready, whether their educational path represents a journey of two or four years.
AMP: Discuss the role of NWACC and other institutions in helping Arkansas maintain a robust skilled workforce.
Dr. Jorgenson: I think the role of NWACC and other institutions in making sure Arkansas maintains a skilled workforce is vital to the future of this state. The bottom line is that without a well-educated, well-trained workforce, businesses and industries already in Arkansas will not be able to expand and may even be tempted to leave, and new businesses and industries will be reluctant to locate in Arkansas.
In my opinion, too many people believe it is all about corporate taxes, but a state could be tax-free for example, and if an industry’s research shows that there is not an available educated workforce, then the location still becomes a losing proposition for that business. An educated workforce is paramount.
As educational institutions, NWACC and others must help legislators, industry recruiters, economic development offices and others understand this important fact. We should not have a situation where there are large numbers of unemployed at the same time that we have large numbers of unfilled, open positions in business and industry. Training and education are the answer to that.
AMP: In what other ways are schools like NWACC positioned to help reinvigorate the COVID-impacted economy?
Dr. Jorgenson: Community colleges are well-positioned to help reinvigorate the economy. NWACC, for example, has a variety of short-term and longer-term workforce training programs as well as education that leads to very affordable associate degrees that then transfer to four-year universities and colleges.
For the unemployed or for those employees who have had their hours greatly reduced because of COVID, NWACC has opportunities for those people to enhance their job skills and strengthen their resumes. That could be something relatively quick and short-term such as an OSHA class, construction/skilled-trades class, computer class, CNA, entrepreneurship training for starting your own business… The list goes on and on.
Additionally, nearly all of the short-term certificates that we grant can be used toward an associate degree at some point in the future if desired. Those are referred to as “stackable credentials” because one by one, they can stack onto each other to lead toward a longer term goal of a college degree, if that‘s the goal. Each class or certificate is valuable in and of itself, but each also stacks into an associate degree if desired.
NWACC is also very responsive to community needs. As the economy changes, as local priorities change, as business and industry in the area changes, we respond by meeting with our local business and industry advisory committees. Listening to them, we take their advice, we shape programs that will meet the needs of our specific community. One such recent certificate program is a Bicycle Industry Employers Association (BIEA) technician program that trains people to be technicians to work on the highly specialized (and expensive) mountain bikes, for example. There are lots of opportunities for short-term and longer-term training and education at NWACC.
AMP: Tell us about the Reskilling and Recovery Network with which you’re involved.
Jorgenson: Twenty-one states including Arkansas came together last year through a partnership between the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to collaborate, share data and ideas, discuss equity and focus on how to move the economy forward, particularly focusing on adult learners, many of whom had lost jobs in the COVID-related economic downturn.
Each individual state’s efforts were reported and discussed so that we could all learn from each other. Efforts focused on short-term training; better support for students, from food banks to child care; pathways to success using stackable certificates; flexible scheduling and training programs and the importance of skill development; as well as certificate and apprenticeship programs. We came away with many good ideas that we hope to implement, and we will continue to review the information to glean additional ideas and contacts for future discussions.