BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – To land the jobs of tomorrow, Alabama’s workers must become better educated and better trained because employers are demanding it as workplace duties become more complex, researchers and business leaders say.
This is not the distant future, either. A Georgetown University study projects that between 2010 and 2020 there will be 790,000 jobs openings in Alabama, with a growing percentage of them requiring education beyond high school or a recognized industrial credential, reflecting a national trend.
“The United States is more educated than ever: In 1973, workers with postsec-ondary education held only 28 percent of jobs; by comparison, they held 59 percent of jobs in 2010 and will hold 65 percent of jobs in 2020,” the “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020” report says.
The bottom line: Demand for better-educated, highly skilled workers is accelerating rapidly in the 21st Century workplace, as jobs available to those lacking educational credentials are becoming increasingly scarce.
This trend represents a challenge for many states, including Alabama, where 45 percent of today’s workers have only a high school diploma or less. The Lumina Foundation, a research organization that focuses on higher education, says around 32 percent of Alabamians have earned an associate’s degree or higher, while another 23 percent attended college but didn’t graduate.
In response to these challenges, Alabama officials have launched a concerted effort to improve educational outcomes and increase workforce preparedness across the state. The formation of the Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) earlier this year represents a key development in this effort.
The AWC is studying ways to strengthen the coordination and collaboration between the business sector, the state’s education systems and other stakeholders involved in workforce development efforts.
“There is nothing more important to our state than job creation and having students who are college and career ready is one of the critical components of economic development,” Governor Robert Bentley said about the AWC’s mission.
Also important is Plan 2020, the Alabama Board of Education’s initiative to raise the state’s high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, up from the current rate of 80 percent. A central feature of Plan 2020 is an emphasis on ensuring that all Alabama students are prepared for careers or the transition to college when they receive their high school diploma.
Plan 2020 includes specific initiatives to get students thinking earlier about their career plans and methods to engage businesses in the education process and the development of curriculum. It contains consistent standards designed to be relevant in the real world, reflecting the knowledge that young people need to be successful in college and career.
“We spent a decade teaching kids how to take a test rather than to be thinkers and creators,” State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice told The Montgomery Advertiser. He added: “We need to prepare every child for what comes next.”
ADDRESSING A ‘MISMATCH’
Analysts and economists in the state say it’s essential for educational attainment levels to rise because these levels among Alabama workers already are lagging.
For example, an August 2014 analysis prepared by the Business Education Alliance and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama said that raising the education levels of the state’s workforce should be a critical priority. The “Obstacles Into Opportunities” report says:
“The current composition of Alabama’s workforce doesn’t match up with the levels of education needed in the modern workplace. Experts project that by 2020 almost two out of every three jobs will require some sort of postsecondary credential, from a certificate to a graduate or professional degree.
“But Alabama’s workforce today is far short of the educational attainment that will be needed. This mismatch may already be affecting our ability to achieve a desirable employment-to-population ratio, but it surely will constrain our future economic success if not corrected,” the report adds.
The trend toward jobs requiring higher levels of education already is being felt in Alabama’s economy. Researchers at the University of Alabama noted that 60 percent of the state’s 20 fastest-growing occupations now require at least an associate’s degree while 35 percent of them require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“Skill and education requirements for jobs keep rising,” the university’s researchers say.