BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Alabama’s efforts to build a next-generation workforce equipped with in-demand skills and education credentials hinge on a closer partnership between education and business, according to analysts and state leaders.
For some time, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and other leaders have pushed to break down boundaries between the state’s business sector and its education system to improve workforce development. They say unprecedented levels of cooperation will become necessary to update worker skills and keep investment flowing into the state in the globally competitive 21st Century.
The push resulted in the creation of the Alabama Workforce Council (AWC). The council is now working to structure a framework for a highly coordinated approach between business and education that could revolutionize workforce development in the state. The AWC is made up of business and industry leaders, educators and government officials selected by Governor Bentley.
“We already have the best workforce training programs in the nation, along with the best workers,” Governor Bentley said. “By increasing collaboration between business and education, the Alabama Workforce Council is positioning the state to go the next level.
“Companies need to see that we can provide a trained, skilled workforce, and this effort will allow us to do that on a larger scale than ever before,” he added.
Over the past several years, Alabama education officials and business leaders have teamed to craft initiatives that align classroom learning with critical workplace needs. In its advisory capacity, the AWC is charged with making recommendations that build on that cooperation and expand it through the entire continuum of education, starting with early childhood development and on to high school and beyond.
‘WHAT COMES NEXT’
Top state education leaders are supporting the effort. Dr. Mark Heinrich, chairman of the Alabama Community College System (ACCS), told AWC members at an August meeting that he sees their work as “critically important” to address “challenges that must be met if we are to continue to grow the economy of this state and provide jobs to our citizens.”
Dr. Tommy Bice, superintendent of the Alabama Department of Education, has made preparing Alabama students a top priority whether it be for the workforce or college.
At the K-12 level, student planning for college and career goals is getting a strong emphasis, and options allowing students to earn college credit while in high school are being expanded. Career and technical education programs are being refreshed and targeted at key industries. Increasingly, education offerings are moving into alignment with workforce needs.
“Our whole goal … is to make sure every child graduates and that they’re prepared for what comes next,” Dr. Bice said in an interview. “And this will help us continually define and re-define that term ‘preparedness.’”
Alabama’s four-year universities are doing their part, too. One example: GE Aviation has worked with Auburn and Tuskegee universities to develop a pipeline of young talent through internship and co-op programs at its Lee County jet engine facility. Auburn University’s partnership with GE Aviation is deepening to support the company’s launch of a landmark 3-D printing initiative at the plant.
There’s little doubt that higher levels of educational attainment will spread prosperity in Alabama – a key AWC objective. To put it simply, more education equals higher earnings and better job security.
Consider these figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- On average, high school graduates earn 38 percent more than non-graduates, and their chances of becoming unemployed are 36 percent lower that those non-graduates
- Earnings for a person holding an associate’s degree are 65 percent higher than for someone who doesn’t have a high school diploma, while the chance of being jobless is half
- A bachelor’s degree translates into earnings that are 2.3 times higher than a high school dropout’s, with an unemployment rate that’s about one-third as high
As part of the effort to build a next-generation workforce, partnerships between companies and schools are viwed as game-changers. These partnerships are seen as an ideal way to leverage the strengths of both classroom and the workplace in order to upgrade worker preparedness.
One partnership that has won praise is a training initiative between Mercedes-Benz and Shelton State Community College that provides students with classroom instruction and factory-floor training and can result in guaranteed job at the Tuscaloosa County auto assembly plant. The first “Mechatronics” program class recently graduated – and all 20 students got job offers.
“With thousands of skilled workers in Alabama just a few years away from retirement, innovative training programs are urgently needed,” Dr. Heinrich said. “With this ‘earn and learn’ approach, the company immediately gets a good worker, and an ACCS college provides training and classroom instruction for that student.
“This kind of customized program has a great future as employers’ needs evolve in a global economy.”
Next year, a new scholarship program kicks off in Alabama that allows businesses to receive a tax credit for financially supporting a “dual enrollment” program that provides a high school student with technical training at an ACCS institution. The “Alabama Future Workforce Initiative,” funded with up to $10 million in donations from businesses across the state, is expected to dramatically increase the number of high school students receiving training in high-demand, high-wage fields such as welding and industrial maintenance.
Apprenticeship programs and other industry-fund partnerships with community colleges and four-year schools need to be expanded because they can have an enormous impact, said State Rep. Mac Buttram of Cullman, a sponsor of the dual enrollment bill.
“There’s definitely not only a need for these programs, but also the fact that these programs can make a huge difference,” Buttram said. “When students know they have to compete for these kinds of opportunities, it makes all of them better.”