Business and Industry Training works to close the skills gap

Springdale-based nonprofit Business and Industry Training (BIT) has been providing flexible, self-paced skills training in Northwest Arkansas for the past 26 years. Recently, the organization has expanded its capacity and reach through grants and support from regional companies and foundations.

BIT director Julie McAllaster said it was founded when local factories faced a shortage of skilled workers, including electricians and plumbers, because they were retiring. Amid the pressure to pursue higher education, factories needed workers faster than the time it took to earn a degree. This prompted regional business leaders to collaborate and create the organization.

In 1996, the group formed Northwest Arkansas Industries for Education — doing business as business and industrial training — to provide workers with short-term, hands-on training outside the classroom.

“It continues to help industry needs to address skills shortages and provide training for individuals,” McAlaster said.

She said that between 2020 and 2022, the number of training courses completed had increased between 65% and 70%, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected training. The existing training capacity is about 60 people per day, not including when several people are at one training station. Office coordinator Sherry Nolan added that the courses are full and there is a waiting list.

In 2018, it opened a nearly 1,000-square-foot location at 201 S. Giles in Gentry to provide training to workers from western Benton County. The following year, it moved its Springdale site from Northwest Technical Institute to a nearly 6,000-square-foot building at 1490 June Self Drive.

In the past few months, the organization has received over $230,000 in training equipment grants and $45,000 in scholarships. Benton County gave $145,442 for scholarships and new training equipment at the organization’s two locations. The Arconic Foundation provided $45,000 for a new process control simulator.

McAlaster said a board of directors runs the organization and more than half are employees of regional companies. The organization’s staff work to ensure that the training it offers remains relevant to the needs of companies by liaising with them.

“We want to grow with the industry and not grow too fast or not fast enough,” McAlaster said.

Jonathan King, senior reliability engineer for Tyson Foods, has served as BIT’s board president for the past six years. He explained the organization’s impact on the area and how it has helped industry workers improve their skill sets.

“As a facility manager in Northwest Arkansas, we use them exclusively for evaluations and training of our team members, as well as upskilling,” King said. “They really provide a service that we haven’t been able to find anywhere else in terms of flexibility and short-term training that is very specific to the user in terms of their needs as well as their schedule.

“I think that part is important because it’s not a standard, traditional semester program. You can take a class for three to five weeks, depending on how much time the individual can commit to. You can take one month off, two months off and then choose another course. It’s very flexible with your schedule, which makes it more successful.”

Nolan said the initial trainees were employees of local companies and people in need of work. More recently, more emphasis has been placed on the preparation of high school students.

“Here’s another avenue where you can still make the same wages you would if you graduated from college and got a job there,” Nolan said. “You can get this job … in a short amount of time, no student loans, and be hired right away … with benefits.”

Rodney Ellis

Rodney Ellis, director of workforce training for Springdale Public Schools, said he chose BIT to offer career opportunities to students who didn’t have access to training programs during the day. He said the school district began training students there while he worked in a similar role with Tyson Foods.

The last group of students graduated there last spring. Another batch of students is expected to start soon, and he said a working high school graduate continues to be trained there.

Soon, Ellis expects students to receive robotics training there. Prior to this, students have received training in electronics, mechanical and fluid power. As students progress, they will move on to advanced electrical training, including motor control, variable frequency drives, and programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

The organization offers Computer Numerical Control (CNC) training; mechanical drives; Fluid power, including pneumatics, hydraulics and robotics; electrical systems; motor controls; and PLCs. The latter consists of programming systems that make the equipment work. McAlaster explained that controllers used in food production can tell equipment when to add food to ready meals based on the weight of each meal.

McAllister said key areas of training include mechanical, electrical and PLC, noting that automation is a new industry the organization is working to support. She expects to receive process control thermal training equipment soon, which is in the electrical and PLC family.

“We also do soft skills training,” McAlaster said. “We offer over 100 different classes. At Rockline, we trained their leaders at the plant and sent an instructor there. We trained them twice a week, every other week. They chose the classes and we went through the training with them.

On-site and off-site training is available to learn CPR, first aid, Excel, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, and confined space safety measures.

McAllaster and Nolan joined the organization in 2018 and worked to develop client relationships.

“We know them, we talk to them, and we find out, ‘Oh, somebody just had a baby, they just moved, or a family member passed away,'” Nolan said. “We’re finding out why they’re not training.”

She said they were finding out to help them.

“I think that’s important because not many companies have that personal relationship with their customers,” she said. “I feel like we’re doing a good job of that.”

Training is available at Springdale from 9am to 9pm, Monday through Thursday. Available at the Gentry location from 9am to 6pm, Monday through Thursday. Training is offered in three-hour segments each day. On average, students can complete each course in five to six weeks, McAlaster said.

The average cost per course is about $900, and McAllaster said payment plans are available. The organization also has scholarships, including a $2,000 CNC scholarship, based on the two courses required to complete the training.

Companies can receive grants to cover the costs of training their employees. The organization works with companies to obtain grants from the Arkansas Skills Development Office. Grants cover 75% of tuition costs. Grants are available to cover 50% of the cost of soft skills training.

McAlaster said she would like to provide training at additional locations in the state if needed. The organization has four full-time and four part-time employees.

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