Guest Column: September 2020
THE NEWPORT INITIATIVE
A new model for workforce innovation
The Emory Group
I HAVE A passion for helping communities grow around technology and innovation, especially those communities outside the major population centers. This passion is rooted in a desire to provide people and organizations the opportunity to not only survive, but to thrive through tech.
If you look at the nation’s tech and innovation landscape today, you’ll see there’s a polarization as it relates to opportunity and jobs. Much of Middle America is being overlooked, as big tech companies cluster on the coasts (e.g., Silicon Valley and Boston) or in small pockets across the nation (e.g., Austin and Atlanta). These clusters are drawing more and more tech talent to them. But while these and a handful of other “tech centers” have sprung up in the U.S., the truth is that very few communities in this country have grown from a technology and innovation perspective. A recent report by Brookings confirms that most communities are losing technology, not gaining it. “The result,” say the Brookings authors, “is a crisis of regional imbalance.”
My concern is that if our country continues down this path, we’re going to leave a hole in Middle America. In fact, I believe the next 10 to 20 years are critical for getting these largely rural communities engaged in the tech workforce and into the tech ecosystem. If we don’t change the trajectory, we may wake up in two decades time and find that large portions of America are so far behind that they can’t catch up.
So how do we start to close that gap?
I’ve been working on answering that question for more than a decade. Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with communities from across the nation. What I’ve seen is that every community has unique assets and unique challenges, and that most communities genuinely want to be engaged in the tech economy and provide opportunities for their residents. I hear it over and over: “Yes, we want to do that. We want to be in that space.” But many don’t know how to go about it, leading to their simply trying to replicate what other communities have done. You can replicate some things, but for true success you have to customize your efforts to meet the community’s unique vision, leverage its key assets, and capitalize on its unique strengths. Tech innovation doesn’t lend itself to a cookie-cutter solution.
One project that I’m very proud of is the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City, Louisiana. In 2007, leaders from Bossier came together and committed to creating generational change in their community. Bossier had an economy built around oil and gas, gaming, healthcare, and Barksdale Air Force Base, but it lacked a true knowledge-based economy. That’s where Bossier’s leadership saw an opportunity. They came together with a vision to build around technology, specifically cybersecurity.
My partner and I were asked to design, develop, and implement a plan that would attract tech jobs to the region, grow a tech workforce, and transform the community. What we came up with was the Cyber Innovation Center, a non-profit that would focus on activities at Barksdale Air Force Base and build around the community’s strategic assets.
First, we leveraged local and state government funding to build a very unique, purposeful facility and infrastructure that could support work with the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. This facility served as a catalyst to bring programs, jobs, and talent to the region. It was also the anchor of the National Cyber Research Park, a 3,000-acre overlay district that would provide a place for collaboration, research, and innovation to grow for years to come. One of our biggest wins was with CSRA (now General Dynamics IT), to build a new technology innovation center that would house more than 800 new tech jobs.
As the research park developed, we understood the limitations of the region’s current workforce to meet future demand. We also knew how critical available tech talent would be to the research park’s long-term success and sustainability, so we decided to develop that talent organically, in our own backyard. Through strategic alliances with K-12 and higher education partners, we established the National Cyber Education Research Center (www.cyber.org). We built a program that would not only address our regional workforce needs, but could also serve as a model to help address the nation’s shortage in cyber talent. As we demonstrated success locally and regionally, the program was adopted as a national model by the Department of Homeland Security and was rolled out nationwide.
At the Cyber Innovation Center, we took a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach focusing on everything from workforce to education, technology R&D, real estate, and economic development. We built a research institute, expanded programs at our local colleges/universities, and even helped shape tax incentives to attract tech jobs to the state. It was a monumental effort that is not only impacting the local community but also the state as a whole, and even our nation. I left Bossier in 2016 and moved to Arkansas but continue to support my friends in Bossier City. I’m so excited to see it continue to grow—the park is about to start construction on its fourth building and the team has doubled in size.
WHICH BRINGS ME to the subject of Newport, Arkansas. By the time you read this, we will have hosted—on September 16—a star-studded ribbon cutting for Newport’s Tech Depot and IT Apprenticeship Academy. Governor Asa Hutchinson will have delivered the keynote, and various state dignitaries will have been present for the festivities. Jon Chadwell, Executive Director of the Newport Economic Development Commission, will have taken a well-deserved bow.
Some of us have been talking about Newport for more than a year now, and I’m proud to have played a role in this inspiring undertaking. It started in the summer of 2019 when I was sharing some ideas with the Governor’s office about how to grow Arkansas’ tech economy. They said, “You need to talk with Jon Chadwell,” a forward-thinking leader in Newport.
So I reached out to Jon and we scheduled time to meet. It started with a simple conversation, sharing stories about our past experiences and brainstorming about the art of the possible. It was like, “Hey, here’s what I’ve done, here’s what you’ve done—let’s do something together here in Newport. What could that be?”
Through many conversations, we put together a framework for a regional IT training center. The premise was simple: (1) Arkansas companies are in need of tech talent; (2) Northeast Arkansas has talented, hardworking folks who would love the opportunity to work in the tech sector; and (3) finding a solution creates positive economic impact for the region and the state.
Jon Chadwell is a progressive, innovative thinker. He had a vision, drive, and assets to bring to the table. In short, we had a willing community eager to participate. And where I saw even more opportunity was by bringing ACDS into the mix. ACDS not only has assets, resources, and money to invest, but they have a mission to increase the tech footprint across the entire state. If these forces came together, we could build something stronger than we could with everybody working on their own. Then overlay that with what’s going on in Northwest Arkansas and we have a recipe for success.
Northwest Arkansas has been growing rapidly in recent years, and the region’s need for tech talent is perennially high. The area is investing heavily in organically growing their own tech-savvy workforce, while continuing to recruit talent from the outside. But there’s still a gap, and companies are forced to look at even more extreme options—outsourcing from India, hiring talent from high-cost coastal centers, and/or opening offices outside the state.
So I said to Jon, “Hey, what if we allowed Arkansas employers to hire Arkansans in different parts of the state as a remote workforce?” That would keep jobs inside the state, stimulate the economy of rural Arkansas, and provide committed, trained talent to Arkansas employers.
As the plan continued to take shape, we wanted to be realistic in our thinking. Everyone who receives training may not stay in the region, and that’s okay. Some will work for regional employers, while others may work remotely for companies located in other communities. These folks will earn good incomes, generating tax dollars and broadening the local/regional economy. Others may decide to start their own businesses, helping to build the entrepreneur community, which has other benefits. While some may decide to move away and apply their skills in a different market, that’s fine too. Because now they have a connection to the area and one day may come back. In every scenario, we’re moving forward and making positive impact for the community, the individual, and the employer.
So why Newport?
Newport is already a regional community with a history of innovation and entrepreneurship. From rail transportation to aviation, rock and roll to agricultural technologies, there’s quite a bit to learn about Newport—including that it’s where Sam Walton opened his first store. Throughout its history, people from around the region have made their way to Newport for entertainment and opportunity. Newport also has a downtown with the necessary tech infrastructure, plus it has ASU-Newport, available office space, and a committed group of community leaders.
Yes, Newport has its challenges, like every community. But when you start cobbling all the pieces together, you can start building momentum and see a clear path to success. For me, that’s a big part of what I’ve always loved doing—connecting the dots and working with forward-leaning leaders who are open to seeing opportunity.
Finally, Newport is just the beginning. Who’s next? It’s too early to say, but I’ve got my eyes on several communities. My hope is that what we’re doing in Newport will generate discussions with other communities, teach us some valuable lessons, and then early next year we can start putting the framework together for Site #2. Regional tech training hubs can bring people together and plant seeds for future growth. I believe people and relationships are still a critical piece of the puzzle, especially in rural America, and we can build on those relationships to establish these innovation hubs across the state. One by one, they will act as mini-catalysts to revamp and renew Arkansas’ workforce to meet the challenges of the 21st century.