Martha Ann Holt-Nichols: A WAEDA Legacy

Martha Ann Holt-Nichols
Martha Ann Holt-Nichols

Recalling a memory in the early days of her tenure at what would later become known as Western Arkansas Employment Development Agency, Incorporated, (WAEDA), administrator Martha Ann Holt-Nichols provides a vivid account of an incident when, during a meeting, she was called on the carpet by a male colleague for sporting pants to work. During that era, wearing such attire was considered a major fashion faux pas for women. The year was 1965, and as was depicted in the Academy Award-nominated box office smash, Hidden Figures, the anticipated work attire at the time consisted of a skirt below the knee, high heels and a single strand of pearls.

Women were entering the workforce in record numbers thanks to an increased demand for laborers as men were fighting in conflicts abroad. A few of the bravest traded in their pumps for hard hats and pursued careers working in the manufacturing sector. There was only one soul with enough faith and passion to take on the arduous task of training the next generation of workers. These teens would eventually spawn many of the doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and electricians of present-day. By complete happenstance, a job meant to last mere months became a lifelong passion for Holt and her team of dedicated professionals.

The assignment ordered by a local judge seemed simple enough–Identify and hire bright-eyed youngsters interested in making extra pocket money while on their summer break. It was an opportunity to earn $1.25 per hour (the average minimum wage at the time according to United States Department of Labor data). The youth were tasked with working at local parks, schools and government offices throughout the community. The employers gained a very loyal worker, and the young people received valuable experience for their lives and résumés. Naturally, as the years progressed, these youngsters became parents and many brought their own children to WAEDA for a lesson in developing a strong work ethic. In some instances, multiple generations in one family all have their own individual recollections of warm summers working for WAEDA.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, the organization stands poised to continue its primary mission of providing training opportunities, job placement, and supportive services for in-demand careers to residents in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott, and Polk counties. Over the years, the program has expanded its reach to aide not only youth but also clients of all ages from various walks of life.

The clientele now includes military personnel, the homeless, ex-offenders, and individuals with special needs. WAEDA’s services have also extended to former employees dislocated from behemoth factories including Southern Steel and Wire, Riverside Furniture, Trane and Whirlpool, once large employers, now fading into obscurity. The organization works closely with other workforce partners including Arkansas Adult Education, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and the Department of Workforce Services to facilitate a seamless transition from school to the workforce. Services are free of charge if the individual meets the necessary criteria.

David Cordell was searching for the next chapter in his career. After faithfully serving as a law enforcement officer at the police department in Paris, Arkansas, Cordell turned to WAEDA for assistance. After a discussion with his appointed case manager, he decided to apply for the commercial driver development program at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith with the goal of obtaining his CDL license. It was an experience like no other and helped to boost Cordell’s confidence before re-entering the job market.

“I enjoyed my time at UAFS,” admits Cordell. “I appreciate WAEDA more than I can put into words for helping me to pay for school.”

Shortly after receiving his license, Cordell received a call offering him a position working as an over the road driver for a major Fortune 500 company, Tyson Foods. Cordell’s story may seem unique, but there are countless others who have benefited from making the wise decision to pay a visit to the red brick building at 1500 East Main Street in Van Buren.

The current workforce climate has surely changed the approach in which WAEDA advises individuals like Mr. Cordell. In July 2014, the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act became the law of the land. With it came a renewed interest in identifying skilled career training programs to put job seekers in the position to learn a new trade and then quickly get back into the workforce. The concept is receiving approval at some of the highest offices at both the state and national levels. WAEDA staff collaborates with organizations, such as Apprenticeship Arkansas and the National Apprenticeship Training Foundation to help clients to locate high-quality industry-recognized apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs.

In the years to come, Arkansans will be uniquely positioned to develop their skills in a variety of high demand fields including construction, industrial mechanics, manufacturing, medicine, and technology. It is an exciting time to be involved in the workforce. Unfortunately, many of the above-mentioned careers tend to be dominated by males. According to a report released by Mathematica Policy Research, only 9% of registered apprenticeship program participants are female. “We recognize there are still challenges, but the statistics motivate us to continue the goal to change lives, one man or woman at a time,” states Holt.

WAEDA is still striving to keep up with the ever-changing workforce here in Western Arkansas, searching for the next crop of scientists, programmers, and engineers in the process. New industries are opening in the area, and as long as the doors remain open there is still hope and opportunity for the David Cordells of the world.

Showing no signs of stopping, Holt still defiantly arrives at work each morning in her pants and pumps, writing her legacy as a tribute to all of the lives she and others have affected for the greater good. While the demands of the workforce may change, one thing that remains the same is WAEDA’s commitment to taking care of the needs of its clients. It is a recipe for success that has worked for more than 54 years, and by faith will continue to do so for many years to come.