The Upskill NWA program provides training and support for students wishing to enter the medical field. These jobs include: registered nurses, orderlies, orderlies, medical assistants; physicians and ophthalmologists, radiology technicians, laboratory technicians, pharmacy technicians, home health aides, emergency medical technicians, medical dosimetrists, optometrists, pharmacy technicians, surgical technicians, phlebotomists, paramedics, dental assistants, respiratory therapists and cardiovascular technicians.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
SPRINGDALE — Noelia Banuelos had dreamed of being a nurse, but her immigration status prevented her.
The Upskill NWA program, an initiative of the non-profit Excellerate Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, brought the 33-year-old mother of three one step closer to achieving her dream. She is one of 100 students who have enrolled this semester in classes at the Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.
The city council is expected to discuss Tuesday whether to back Upskill with $3 million in funding from the city’s U.S. bailout.
Upskill NWA is a three-part workforce education program to help residents “upgrade” their skills, said Jeff Webster, president and CEO of Excelerate.
Banuelos is working to transition from a certified practical nurse to a licensed practical nurse and, perhaps eventually, to a registered nurse.
Philanthropists, local governments and the state would provide a total of $30 million over five years to establish the program, according to a plan Webster presented to the board last month. Inspired by the Project Quest program launched in San Antonio, Upskill is expected to continue in five years, he said.
Staff from the Northwest Technical Institute, Northwest Arkansas Community College, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at the Northwest Regional Campus would teach the skills. Washington Regional Medical Center, MANA Medical Associates, Northwest Medical Center, Arkansas Children’s Northwest, and Mercy Northwest Arkansas would agree to hire program graduates. Upskill staff will intervene with student social services as needed.
Graduates agree in return to work for two years in the medical companies that hire them.
The program would allow residents who are under-resourced to make changes to their families and take on essential jobs in the area’s medical industry, Webster said. The first class began in January with $1.5 million from the Excellerate Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, reported Ali Johnson, chief technology and marketing officer at Excellerate.
Money provided by Springdale would help build an expansion at the Northwest Technical Institute for training, as well as provide programs, he noted.
The program would also align with the city’s goal of positioning the area around Arvest Ballpark as a regional destination for medical care between Dallas and Kansas City.
Offices and institutions that choose to locate in the district will need nurses and technicians. After their two-year commitments are completed, Upskill students could move into those jobs, said Larry Shackelford, president and CEO of Washington Regional Medical Center.
The $30 million needed to establish the Upskill NWA program would be a one-time request and would come from its three areas of community partnership: government, philanthropic groups and the health care industry, Webster said.
Beneficiary employers would pay Upskill placement fees for hired students, Shackelford said. The placement fee would go towards running the program the following year, he said.
Philanthropists would bear the brunt of the costs of expanding the Washington County campus of the Northwest Technical Institute and Northwest Arkansas Community College, both in Springdale.
Upskill NWA officials plan to approach the governments of the two counties and four major cities in the region to fund the program, Webster said. The requests are based on 4% of a city’s allocation from the US bailout for covid recovery, he noted.
Excellerate officials are also planning state money to help build the extensions.
Webster said Excellerate plans to expand Upskill NWA offerings into other career fields important to Northwest Arkansas, such as information technology.
The group decided to focus on health care first because of the high demand for such positions, he said.
Health care and social assistance is the region’s third-largest industry, but the second-fastest-growing in the number of jobs added each month, Webster reported.
Officials believed Northwest Arkansas had training programs in place, but when Excellerate officials approached local post-secondary institutions, they found the programs were full, he said. -he declares.
It was then that the Excellerate Foundation went looking for partners to help build facilities.
The Northwest Technical Institute has received a $10 million pledge from the foundation for a 50,000-square-foot building project on the northwest portion of its campus, said school president Jim Rollins.
The school could increase the number of graduates of its medical trades from 100 a year to 300, Rollins said.
The Excellerate Foundation has committed $6 million to fund an 11,000 square foot expansion of the Washington County campus of Northwest Arkansas Community College. The school could graduate an additional 120 registered nurses per year, Webster said.
Major medical organizations in the area are doing a good job of training and recruiting doctors, Shackelford said. But the profession would need support staff for these doctors.
The Upskill Medical Advisory Board counted openings one day last summer and found 950 jobs in the targeted fields, Shackelford said.
Now is the time for the Upskill program, Shackelford added. Cities have received money from the federal government to help those affected by the pandemic.
U.S. bailout guidelines allow the money to be used to help certain populations that have been “affected” and “disproportionately impacted” by the pandemic, according to National Association of Counties information provided by Excellerate.
Local governments can provide community health workers to help households access health and social services, services to address education disparities, and educational equipment and facilities for schools.
“Healthcare workers, especially right now, are keeping our well-being going,” said Carol Silva Moralez, president and CEO of Upskill NWA. “But there’s not enough to give us everything we need because of covid.”
The Upskill program not only pays for tuition, books, and course fees, but can also help a student with childcare, transportation, tutoring, rental assistance, or other costs that could create a barrier to education, Webster said.
Upskill NWA also matches each student with a career navigator, he said.
“These navigators meet individually with each student once a week to ensure that the individual achieves that high end job which also gives financial stability,” reads the Upskill website. “Career Navigator support is on board through graduation and throughout placement.”
Through meetings in the Whole Health Institute’s “Take Charge of Your Life” program, students learn life skills for financial planning, conflict resolution, and becoming successful employees.
The nonprofit Whole Health Institute strives to change the ways the community works together to help individuals take charge of their health. The institute, which would include a medical school, was founded in 2017 by Alice Walton.
Upgrading students might not fit the traditional student profile, Webster said.
“They could be the first person in their family to graduate from high school,” he said. “They may not know how to fill out a financial aid form. They may not have a supportive family infrastructure.”
Further education students are not eligible for education and financial aid under the Deferred Action Immigration Policy for Childhood Arrivals, Moralez said. The policy protects people who entered the United States illegally as children from deportation. Immigrants with Deferred Action can get a permit to work or go to school in that country.
“They have not been able to receive national funding for financial aid, but they are eligible for our program. They have untapped potential. Others are stuck in circumstances where they have to work to continue living” , she said. “They can’t stop and go to school because they have to work to support their homes.”
All of these students have one thing in common: They don’t have access to the resources needed to make a change for themselves and their families, Moralez said.
Not quite a nurse, Banuelos still spent her life helping people. She worked full-time on the night shift as a nursing assistant at area nursing homes, where she learned to appreciate elders.
“I love learning their stories,” she said. “At that age, they don’t have filters and will tell you how it is.”
Nursing was put on the back burner when Banuelos started her family, she said. Her children are 11, 9 and 1 years old.
Going to school doesn’t allow her to be home during the day to care for her youngest, she said. It also does not allow full-time work at night.
Upskill has helped her reduce childcare costs to small payments she can afford.
Banuelos said her 11-year-old son Alan saw her studying a few weeks ago and asked her why. She told him that she had to pass her test and complete the program because it’s really important to her to help people, to make a difference in someone’s life. She told him that there is never an age to stop learning.
On a recent trip to the store, Alan asked her to buy him some pens or crayons, Banuelos said. He said he wanted his school grades to be like his.
“He said he wanted to be as diligent as me,” she said.
Banuelos admitted that a fear also kept her from going to nursing school – the fear of needles. She’s not sure she wants her classmates to practice their skills on her.
“But now is the time,” she said. “With the shortage of nurses, it’s time to overcome my fear.”