Celebrating Success: Online Job Training Program Wraps Up with Wins

April 18, 2024  |  by Heidi Wells, Global Campus

Tara Fletcher-Gibbs (left) and Amy McCarthy completed Reimagine-funded training programs to advance their careers.
Tara Fletcher-Gibbs (left) and Amy McCarthy completed Reimagine-funded training programs to advance their careers.

Sometimes, a person needs a boost to succeed, especially during a worldwide pandemic.

The Reimagine Arkansas Workforce Project offered that boost to 3,659 people who live or work in Arkansas.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $13.6 million in 2020 to the Arkansas Workforce Development Board and the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services to benefit Arkansans who would find the cost of job training a barrier because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The University of Arkansas Professional and Workforce Development division and several state partners administered the project. The U of A set its initial goal at 2,000 participants.

Tara Fletcher-Gibbs of Fayetteville qualified for federal funding available to pay for online job training through Reimagine. Fletcher-Gibbs was working two part-time jobs, which meant she was not receiving benefits typically offered only with full-time employment. She enjoyed her jobs, especially the one at a local theater company. But, she didn't have a college degree, which limited her options.

“I really wanted to stand out and have them want me full time,” she said. “It was on my bucket list to have some kind of art education on my resume. I have all kinds of art experience.”

The Reimagine Arkansas Workforce Project provided free, online training to eligible applicants with a choice of programs in 15 industry clusters ranging from clinical medical assistant to software developer to advanced manufacturing. The three-year grant period with a one-year extension expires in September, and the project stopped taking new applications recently as the final participants finish their programs. The role of the U of A Global Campus' Professional and Workforce Development division was to help assess statewide skill gaps for in-demand occupations, develop online training programs and deliver training designed to help Arkansans return to or thrive in the pandemic-era workplace.

Tara Dryer, senior managing director of Professional and Workforce Development, said the Reimagine program met its goals and then some.

“We enrolled nearly twice as many applicants as we originally planned, and we saw time and again that these training courses made a difference in people's lives,” Dryer said. “This grant project allowed Professional and Workforce Development to meet our mission of delivering training to people in a quick and efficient way to allow them to participate in the local economy and improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. We further developed strong partnerships with workforce agencies around the state necessary for the success of Reimagine. These partnerships will help us continue to serve Arkansans.”


Career Advancement

Two things happened simultaneously that led to Fletcher-Gibbs landing a full-time position with the theater company, but her new job was not related to art. Theatre-Squared had found itself in a bind when the full-time graphic designer went on leave, and Fletcher-Gibbs had enrolled in a Digital Arts Certificate program funded by Reimagine.

With what she was learning in the online certificate program, Fletcher-Gibbs dove in head-first to help the theater company.

“I was able to do everything they needed,” she said. “It was the coolest experience right out of the gate. I met the career-level expectations and deadlines. It was so nice to have that experience among my co-workers who I already felt comfortable with.”

Since that experience with the marketing team, Fletcher-Gibbs has been promoted to a full-time position as the finance office assistant. The certificate gave Fletcher-Gibbs the skills to step in and prove herself as a good employee, and it allowed her to achieve her goal of having art education on her resume. She continues to work on her art at home.

“I am so thankful this program even existed in the first place,” she said. “Had I not been able to save the day last year, they wouldn't have given me full-time employment. It put me on the map as being a trustworthy and accountable person.”

Andrea Newby, TheatreSquared's director of marketing and communications, agreed.

“Tara Fletcher-Gibbs, with her exceptional skills honed through her Digital Arts Certificate, became an invaluable asset to TheatreSquared, especially during our most hectic periods,” Newby said. “Her proficiency in Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop enabled her to not only meet deadlines but often exceed them, delivering high-quality work ahead of schedule. Her creative input and design expertise played a crucial role in the resounding success of our annual Gala.”


Serving Others

Kerry Garcia, grant compliance specialist for Professional and Workforce Development, helped thousands of Reimagine participants on their journey to earn that boost. At least one person in each of Arkansas' 75 counties enrolled in Reimagine, Garcia said, from the population centers in Northwest and Central Arkansas to the tiniest burgs throughout the state.

Of the 3,659 people who enrolled, 81%, or 2,976, were women and 30%, or 1,207, were 55 years or older, Garcia reported. Another 34%, or 1,252, were unemployed at the time they applied. Members of minority populations made up 56%, or 2,033, of the participants. The total included 15 residents of neighboring states who work in Arkansas.

Staff members created 10 new online job training courses with input from Arkansas business and industry representatives. The top five industry clusters with the highest enrollments were health care, 1,860; technology, 525; business, 514; project management, 179; and manufacturing, 95.

“These training courses have allowed program participants an opportunity to reskill, upskill and to obtain new and exciting employment opportunities,” Garcia said. “My position gave me the opportunity to speak with many of them and to see how they overcame obstacles and worked hard to improve their career prospects. Reimagine would not have been successful without people who had a vision and determination to change their lives.”

Garcia was the primary application reviewer and the first point of contact for the Reimagine Arkansas Workforce Project. She was responsible for processing all applications, determining eligibility and enrolling people in the program, and she is now concentrating on assisting participants as they complete their training programs. She was named the Global Campus Employee of the Quarter last August for her work on Reimagine.

Sheila Bowerman, academic records specialist with U of A Global Campus, also worked with many of the Reimagine participants, checking in regularly with them by email. She said the highlight for her was feeling their excitement when they successfully completed their program.

“So many times, we have heard from participants about how much they've enjoyed the program, how it has helped improve their lives, and how much it meant that we were there for them throughout their enrollment,” Bowerman said. “Being able to offer participants a means to potentially overcome hardships, to offer hope, encouragement, and the confidence to change their lives means the world to me. Every program completion is a victory, every participant who has completed is celebrated. It has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career with the U of A.”


A Fresh Start

Another of the participants, Amy McCarthy, framed her certificate of completion for the course in Medical Billing and Coding and hung it on a wall in her Harrison home. A mother of five adults, she was looking for a career she could get into quickly. An internet search produced medical coding as one of the top results, and she found the U of A's Reimagine program when she looked for programs to get certified in the field.

McCarthy enrolled and started the coursework in September 2022, the first time she had been “in school” since 1990. She finished in January 2023 and spent another two months preparing for the certification exam. That step achieved, she began working in medical billing and coding in May. Currently furloughed, she expects to go back to work in her chosen field soon, filling her time with a data entry position for now.

“It's very interesting,” McCarthy said about medical billing and coding. “I like it quite a bit. There are a ton of directions you can go in. I had been a stay-at-home mom for 25-plus years. I had a few odd jobs but never had a career. My kids are all grown and doing their own thing. I thought, ‘What are you going to do now?' ”

Her success has provided a good example for some of her children and friends.

“You can do it, whatever it is,” McCarthy said. “You can go back to school; you've just got to do it. It can be hard to pivot into anything new when you're used to doing one thing. To be able to do it this smoothly was kind of amazing.”

Photo of Heidi Wells

Heidi Wells

Content Strategist

Heidi Wells is the content strategist for the Global Campus at the University of Arkansas and editor of The Online Learner. Her writing spans more than 30 years as a communicator at the U of A and a reporter and editor at Arkansas newspapers. Wells earned two degrees from the U of A: a master's in 2013 and a bachelor's in 1988.

Wells can be reached at heidiw@uark.edu or 479-575-7239.

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