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Northwest Arkansas' biggest employers provide stability, potential for growth

by Stacy Ryburn | March 26, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Work continues Monday, March 13, 2017 on the north end zone of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The renovation is part of a $160 million project that will fully enclose the 78-year-old stadium. The stadium will grow from a capacity of 72,000 to about 76,000 in September 2018. The project includes new premium seating, including Founders Club Suites on the east side of the stadium, outdoor loge boxes - a cluster of four to eight seats separated from others by a partition - and club seating. The new seating areas will connect the concourse to the east and west walkways.

The region's largest companies have provided stable jobs as businesses associated with them increasingly flock to Northwest Arkansas, contributing to an overall growth in employment over the past decade.

More than 9,000 people work for more than 1,600 vendors within a 20-mile radius of the Wal-Mart Home Office, where an additional 18,000 people work. Tyson Foods has undergone a rebrand and delved into a more sustainable food system, purchasing various subsidiaries along the way. J.B. Hunt expects to add more than 1,000 jobs over the next five years or so as part of its corporate headquarters expansion.

Largest employers

Benton County

  1. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
  2. J.B. Hunt Transports Services Inc.
  3. Rogers School District
  4. Mercy Health System of Northwest Arkansas
  5. Bentonville School District
  6. Simmons Foods Inc.
  7. McKee Foods Corp.
  8. Arvest Bank Group
  9. Tyson Foods Inc.
  10. Ozark Mountain Poultry Inc.

Washington County

  1. Tyson Foods Inc.
  2. University of Arkansas
  3. Springdale School District
  4. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
  5. PAM Transport Inc.
  6. George’s Inc.
  7. Washington Regional Medical Center
  8. Fayetteville School District
  9. U.S. Veterans Medical Center
  10. Cargill Inc.

Source: Arkansas Economic Development Commission

The health care industry also has grown. Arkansas Children's Northwest in Springdale will open in early 2018. Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas in Rogers expects to add 100 physicians with about 1,000 co-workers to support them over the next five to 10 years as part of its $247 million expansion. Northwest Health System and Washington Regional Medical Center have grown with the population.

The region's population grew by more than 50,000 people from 2010 to 2015, according to Census data. Enrollment at the University of Arkansas increased by 10,000 students in 10 years. The university hired 400 faculty members and nearly 500 staff members to handle the growth.

All that has pushed leaders to turn their heads toward careful planning, place an emphasis on technical training and keep an eye on an ever-competitive e-commerce market as the new decade approaches.

Who works where?

The region has had a decline in certain job fields despite the growth in so many others, although some of the numbers can be misleading, said Mike Harvey, interim president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

About 10,000 people work in construction, a slight dip from 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, since 2011, after the recession took its toll, construction surged and the numbers have gone up, Harvey said.

"Construction took a hit. They took it on the chin," he said. "We're always kind of somewhat insulated from what goes on in the larger macro economy, but bubbles happen and people just got out of hand."

Manufacturing has seen the biggest decline. More than 30,000 people worked in manufacturing in 2006 compared to about 25,000 now. Automation has played a big part in that, Harvey said.

However, manufacturing still provides a good living wage and the shift to automation is nothing new. Harvey said there's a silver lining.

"Anything that can be automated is something that's in trouble. So, a lot of the monotonous hand work that has been done in the past -- they basically get to a point of commodity and they go away," he said. "But the stuff that doesn't go away is the fact that you've got to troubleshoot if the machine breaks down and make sure it's maintained. Those are pretty complex pieces of machinery to operate, so those are the jobs we've seen grow."

The growth in professional and business services skyrocketed from 30,000 workers in 2006 to about 50,000 now. Information technology, a big push on data analytics and vendors serving the area's largest companies, fall in that category.


All of Wal-Mart's biggest suppliers, or vendors, reside right here. Most online business is being conducted in San Bruno, Calif., but the buyers are in Bentonville. Some of that San Bruno business will shift to our area, but not to the point it will create a spike in new jobs, said Cameron Smith of Cameron Smith and Associates.

The story of how e-commerce ultimately will affect Wal-Mart as it fights to compete with the likes of Amazon is still being written, Smith said.

Fewer than 100 vendors were here in the 1990s, when Smith coined the term "Vendorville." Now more than 1,600 suppliers, from Procter & Gamble to Disney, have offices in the region.

In the last few years, Smith's firm has seen 30 to 40 small suppliers set up shop annually, but many of those businesses have consolidated and merged. Vendorville may be shrinking a bit, but third-party suppliers, or "vendors to vendors," as Smith put it, have emerged with a force, he said.

More than 400 such companies specializing in packaging, marketing, merchandising and data analysis are here, Smith said.

"This is the biggest growth area we are seeing as it pertains to Vendorville," he said. "They are saying that in five years, Northwest Arkansas could be the Silicon Valley of data analytics."


More than 7,500 physicians, nurses and staff members work at the three major health-care providers, according to figures provided by representatives from Washington Regional Medical Center, Northwest Health System and Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas.

The field shows no signs of slowing down. Washington Regional has expanded in all health care fields, increasing the number of inpatient beds as well as the number of outpatient clinics the hospital operates, said Steve Percival, vice president of Human Resources.

Those two strategies have required more direct patient-care staff, such as registered nurses, aides, pharmacists, lab and imaging technicians on top of additional support staff in maintenance, bio-medical, dietary and the business office.

"We believe that Washington Regional's growth will continue to be steady," Percival said. "As long as we continue to receive requests for services, patients to take care of and opportunities to serve Northwest Arkansas to help improve the health of those in our community, we will continue to grow and provide the region with the best place to get care and the best place to give care."

Northwest Health has continued to see growth in clinical positions, such as registered nurses, and other professional and technical positions, according to CEO Sharif Omar.

Employees directly involved in patient care make up the majority of new hires at Northwest Health, Omar said. The evolution of professional standards and credentialing agencies has prompted the hospital to hire clinical employees with more certifications, he said.

"As Northwest Health continues to grow and expand to meet our community's needs, the need to recruit new hires to the area will increase," Omar said. "Additionally, we see ourselves as a key partner to local colleges and health-care training providers."

Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas will add a new tower and seven primary care and specialty clinics as part of its $247 million expansion. A recruitment push seeks to add 100 physicians and 1,000 supportive co-workers over the next decade in direct care of patients, food service, environmental service and administration, according to a Mercy spokeswoman.

The historic period of expansion at Mercy means the hospital will increase its workforce by 50 percent.

UA impact

Not only has the University of Arkansas seen a staggering increase in enrollment and more faculty and staff to support the growing student population, but the institution's economic impact goes far beyond the walls of the classroom, said Steve Voorhies, media relations.

Researchers from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Sam M. Walton College of Business found the university pumped $1.2 billion into the Arkansas economy in 2014. Most of that, about $932 million, went to Northwest Arkansas.

The proof of the university's impact on the economy and ultimately employment can be seen throughout the region. Dozens of construction projects on campus and off have been built in the past 10 years to meet the needs of 10,000 additional students. About a dozen projects on campus are underway, including the expansion of Razorback Stadium, Voorhies said.

"Besides the jobs building these apartment complexes, the people who run them, maintain them and otherwise work there, all have jobs because of the University of Arkansas," he said. "I guess you could also count everyone who works in a restaurant or bar in Fayetteville as well. All of this in addition to the businesses the university sustains with our students, our research and our other resources."

Stability, growth

J.B. Hunt will add 1,000 more jobs in the state coinciding with its six-story, 133,000-square-foot tower set to open this spring. That's in addition to the more than 20,000 people who work at the Fortune 500 company throughout the United States and at the four- and five-story buildings in its business complex in Lowell.

Transportation jobs in Northwest Arkansas have grown from about 50,000 in 2006 to about 55,000 in 2016, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

A Tyson spokesman said close to 400 people work at affiliated offices in downtown Springdale. Jobs also have been added at Tyson's corporate office. Additionally, the company has been working with the Siloam Springs and Springdale school districts to invest in technical trades.

Tyson Foods unveiled its new logo in February and with it a renewed focus on innovation to bring a variety of new products to meet the evolving desires of consumers. All Tyson chickens will be produced without the use of antibiotics, for example.

The company also has pushed strategic partnerships to set science-based innovation goals, according to a news release.

Tyson has been purchasing various brands and subsidiaries and put offices throughout Northwest Arkansas, rather than expanding its headquarters, said Mervin Jabaraj, assistant director for the university's Center for Business and Economic Research.

"There's definitely going to be more organic growth from these large industries," he said. "That doesn't mean to say that there isn't going to be any growth at all; it's just not going to be as fast as what it used to be in the early 2000s."

Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson provide a stable base for employment in Northwest Arkansas because they represent the biggest names in their respective industries, Jabaraj said. Businesses coming on those companies' periphery will provide the growth, he said.

"It's very important to have these employers that are in somewhat more diverse industries and not just one industry," Jabaraj said. "The region isn't susceptible to economic conditions in one particular industry."

NW News on 03/26/2017

Print Headline: Largest employers provide stability, growth potential


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