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Education made to order: public universities tailor training specifically for business, industry.

EVERY WEEK, THE CALENDAR of events that runs in Arkansas Business is full of seminars, workshops and other training opportunities for business and industry or even individuals and associations.

Any business or industry in Arkansas that needs help in educating its work force or management has plenty to choose from--most of it at a relatively low cost.

The Arkansas Small Business Development Center is a public service unit of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's College of Business, in partnership with other Arkansas higher education institutions.

The ASBDC offers research and information, consulting and training services to the business community: Its training courses range from introductory programs to advanced seminars, lunchtime workshops and large conferences offered at low cost. Most of the sessions last half a day or all day. Topics and schedules vary between the offices at the state's public universities. Many are geared to individuals looking for help in starting a new business.

In the past few years, however, a different type of organization has taken on an expanding role at some of the state's colleges and universities--one that is much more adept at tailoring ongoing education to help companies in a college's region be successful in meeting their goals.

Basically, no matter what kind of a problem a company may have, these institutions of higher learning either have someone on their faculty or access to someone knowledgeable in that field to provide the needed training help.

One of the fastest-growing programs is the Professional Development Institute at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville.

Michael B. Roys, director, said it was a logical step for the school. "Our dollars come from the community. This is one way we give back to the community," he said.

What PDI does is to talk to the people in industry and business in the area and ask "What keeps you up at night? What challenges are you facing?" Then, based on that input, PDI goes about developing a customized strategy or curriculum to help, Roys said.

"The response from the community has been great," Roys said. "The success of our department has been because of our networking, communication, response to requests and the quality of our training courses and programs."

Over at Jonesboro, Arkansas State University's Delta Center for Economic Development does pretty much the same thing in that region of the state.

The center maintains scheduled classes in such topics as "Problem Solving in the Workplace," "Managing Conflict" and "Becoming a More Effective Communicator" to update skills for a current job or train for a new job, said the center's executive director, Mark Young.

But about 75 percent of what the center does, Young said, is customizing any sort of training needed by an organization or company to increase productivity and profitability.

Like Tech's PDI, the Delta Center will develop whatever curriculum is needed--from a three-hour session to a year-long course to meet a company's needs.

"We see it as a holistic approach to economic development," Young said. "It's not a cookie-cutter solution. We develop a custom program that is unique to each company since each has different needs."

At Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas' Division of Continuing Education operates the Office of Services to Business and Industry the same way in providing work force education and development.

OSBI is the oldest customized training center in the state. It was developed in the 1980s by Nancy Hairston, who is now director of noncredit studies at the university. After gaining access to work force training materials, she said, she spent a year knocking on the doors of manufacturers in the region and working with the companies to blend those materials with customized, focused training to meet a company's needs and improve its effectiveness.

All of the schools work with companies of all sizes and all types of industries. And all say they work to stay up with the latest developments.

Hairston said she seeks to find out not only what's happening in an industry today but what's projected five years down the road.

"We may need to shift what we're doing to be responsive," she said, so the company will be better positioned to compete in the future.

Roys said the PDI had 41 different business and industry clients during the past school year. It also provided services to 14 federal and state agency clients. A total of 762 individuals attended training.

The Arkansas Association of County Collectors, looking for a college to manage its continuing education program, chose Tech's PDI. Three times a year PDI conducts conferences and professional development training for the group.

What turned out to be a major undertaking for PDI this year was the Arkansas River Valley Wildland Fire Academy: a two-week program on wildfire suppression training, which addresses all fires not inside buildings. It drew 360 attendees and more than 80 instructors and assistants to the campus in June.

The event actually attracted firefighters from seven states plus Puerto Rico. Academies of this type have been held in other states, but Arkansas firefighters have had this kind of training spread out during the year and at different locations.

All of the schools realize the effects of technology on business and manufacturing. Without continuing education for employees, they say, it's difficult for companies to be successful in what has become a global marketplace. Roys said he's starting to work with national and state associations to offer courses for professional development

"PDI fits like a glove at Arkansas Tech," Roys said. "In the past five years it has become an integral part of the university and has contributed to the growth of the campus (now at 6,000 students) by being very responsive to the needs of the community as well as the needs of business and industry."

The Delta Center at ASU offers a lot of general economic development planning courses, Young said. But its bread and butter is its custom programs. In a given year, Young said, some 2,000 will undergo training through the Delta programs. Last year there were 24 custom projects, from which Young said there was "extremely positive" feedback.

"Everyone in economic development knows the big need for a good quality work force," Young said. "Business is much more competitive than it was years ago and companies must be as productive as they can be to meet that competition. To be successful, ongoing training is needed to meet the changes they are going through."

Many of the employers that Delta Center has serviced are repeat customers, Young said, for they have seen increased productivity from their employees who applied their new skills in the workplace.

Building long-term relationships with the companies to which it provides services is also the goal of UA's Hairston.

Hairston, who serves on a national work force committee, said that Arkansas is actually very progressive in work force development.

UA's OSBI program provided its practical and flexible services to 75 companies last year.

All of the programs like to keep the sessions to no more than 12-15 people if possible to provide more interaction and participation among those attending.

Tech's PDI, ASU's Delta Center and UA's OSBI are all providers of the International Organization for Standardization certification training. Each school says its programs continue to evolve and grow, and new training options are added as new knowledge and technology become available.

The programs are self-supporting. They do generate revenue, but that money is reinvested to upgrade the programs so they can provide more training, purchase new computers and software, and add to the curriculums, Roys said.

Hairston sees it as reinvesting back into the work force and state. By doing that, the economy is helped, which in turn helps the schools.

Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia also provides customized training services to businesses in south Arkansas through its Division of Continuing Education.

Like the others, it offers on-campus and off-campus night classes, workshops, short courses and noncredit community service activities.

Sessions range from managerial communication to sexual harassment awareness.

For businesses looking for the latest data or help on just about anything pertaining to their business, the University of Central Arkansas' Small Business Advancement National Center is in a class by itself.

The center, founded in 1990, is a complete one-stop storehouse of information on small business and entrepreneurship, but its Web site is the heart of the center. It claims to rank as one of the top 10 in the world for small business research and entrepreneurship with more than 1 million visitors each month. The recently renovated Web site is at www.sbaer.uca.edu.
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Author:Henry, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Aug 8, 2005
Words:1429
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