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Workforce Development

Hope for Alabama’s Economic Future?

Hope for Alabama’s Economic Future?

18 January 2013

Hope for Alabama’s Economic Future?

by Hugh J. Rushing


Beverly Callaway blames Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This satellite, launched by Russia in 1957, set off the space race and an emphasis on education in science and mathematics to combat the presumed superiority of America’s arch cold war enemy. “That was when vocational education began to decline,” Callaway says. “Everything and everybody was focused on college education. Funding was cut for career training; trade and craft training moved into community colleges if it moved at all.”

Now there is what Callaway terms, “The Gap”. While millions say they can’t find jobs, companies complain they can’t find a worker that can “hammer a nail”, much less show up on time and ready to work.

Callaway is a workforce specialist with the Economic and Community Development Institute at Auburn University, working in Region 8, which includes Russell, Bullock, Macon, Lee and Chambers counties. Her aim is to close the gap and match the abilities of high school graduates with the needs of modern manufacturing and construction going forward. This will require a total rethinking of how secondary education functions in the state. “The textile mill is gone. The sewing jobs are gone. Jobs for those without modern skills have disappeared,” she observes.

Callaway has a track record. Beginning in 2000, in Bay County, in the panhandle of Florida, she headed a notable “Classrooms to Careers” program, which sought to prepare students beginning high school for the types of jobs available for those who do not go on to college. Now a resident of Hurtsboro, she is working on a program in Region 8 that involves high schools and firms that need responsible, trainable employees, particularly in modern industrial and manufacturing firms. A study by the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research reported in 2010 that 15 percent of the total employment in Region 8 was in manufacturing, the largest subsector of employment in that area of Alabama.

Allen Harris, who heads Bailey-Harris Construction in Auburn, and an ABC-Alabama Board Member, is an enthusiastic supporter of the program. “I don’t care how good an economic recruiter you are, if you don’t have a workforce that can do the work, then you aren’t going to grow,” Harris says. “If we don’t have economic growth then there aren’t going to be any buildings needing to be built. It affects the entire economy of Alabama.”

Dr. Philip Cleveland, the State Director of Career and Technical Education and Workforce Development since January of 2012, says that skills such as a solid work ethic and team work aren’t being taught and must be integrated into the curriculum of high schools so that students, when they do graduate, will be ready to add value to whatever job they find. “For a long time, we have forced students to make decisions, which locked them into a single educational path in the 8th grade. With the State Board of Education’s approval in January, we will shift to a system that will match student’s interest and talents to opportunities which provide real careers.”

An increasing number of states are using statewide testing to measure real-world job skills. The ACT WorkKeys system has three components: job profiling, assessments and education/training, and emphasizes such skills as applied mathematics, locating information and reading for information. Alabama is using WorkKeys as part of its career readiness certificate which students can earn.

Another of the steps in the revamped program, Cleveland points out, is the state’s adoption of the NCCER, recognized curriculum for commercial and industrial construction. “This credentialing is very important, in that it provides transferrable credits a student can use to build up their experience level and transfer when needed.” He also credits the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute’s “Go Build®” program for building awareness of the solid careers and earnings which trained craft workers can enjoy.

Allen Harris says that he thinks from the top down, education officials in the state have a clearer picture now than in the past about what needs to be done for students. “I think we are moving away from the idea that everyone is going to go to college and get a job with a desk in an office and wear a tie to work every day. [State Superintendent] Tommy Bice gets it—“that we need to quit pressuring every kid into an educational track that they may have no interest in.”

Employers have complained that in the past, their efforts to attract workers by working with guidance counselors in high schools have been stymied by a system that rewarded counselors only for steering graduates to college. Philip Cleveland looks to organized industry advisory committees, which can work with schools in addition to training counselors in career coaching. “Next year, every high school student will take a career assessment test, which will identify their interest and skills and help them identify careers, which align with those skills and interests.”

Cleveland envisions a future where every high school has a career coach focused on construction and manufacturing to provide resources and other guidance to inform students about what job opportunities exist and the skills needed to obtain and keep those jobs.

Already putting such a program into action is Beverly Callaway’s work in Region 8. Seventeen high schools in the region are linking up with the industry. Students take field trips to manufacturing and construction sites to learn about the job opportunities available and the skills required in order to perform them. “We have to get schools to recognize they need to teach and prepare students for today’s occupations, not those of a generation ago,” Callaway says. The program will take over 5,000 students to over 25 companies during 2013.

Cleveland says that he hopes the industry can help perpetually short-funded technical education by strategic donations. “You look in a construction site waste pan, and you’ll see things we desperately need in our schools. What is trash or scrap to some, are things we can use and even re-use. We even teach masonry classes, and before the mortar dries the class can knock it off and re-use the block and brick. Wire scraps are needed for electrical training. Scrap lumber can be used in carpentry classes.”

Allen Harris vows, “You show me a school with a good career development program, and we can buy them a welding machine if that’s what they need.” Harris, along with Steve Spencer of Russell Building Supply, in November, donated 50 sheets of plywood to the Chambers County Career Technology Center in Lafayette, Alabama. This donation allowed students to fabricate holiday decorations and sharpen their carpentry skills. “Career development in the 9th and 10th grades is becoming a more valuable asset than a secondary degree because in these times there is a plethora of unemployed ‘diplomas’. Carpenters, bricklayers, welders in particular, sheet metal workers and all types of other mechanics are in very short supply,” Harris says.

Experienced observers of the construction industry in the state worry that when building does eventually ramp up, the state’s immigration law’s hollowing out of the construction workforce will become evident. Some think the state’s secondary education department is going to have to step up their training and development of workers for the future.

Beverly Callaway sees Alabama at a critical juncture for the state, where the need for training programs necessary for high tech, high wage jobs provided by the state’s industries is imperative. “We promised these firms a skilled, trained workforce when they were recruited to the state and education at all levels must provide that training.”

Callaway points to a meeting held in July with representatives of industry, education and economic development as a crucial first step in “bridging the gap” by changing programs, policies and whatever is necessary to focus on career development.

Her advice to construction and industry is, “Get involved with the Career Tech High School in your area. Send an employee to work with the students in the construction department of that school. You’ll be amazed at what they are doing and learning, but they need your help and guidance to ‘stay up to speed’ with industry needs.”

Recently Callaway accompanied a field trip from a Chambers County school to West Point Industries in West Point, Georgia. “When they heard that directly out of high school they could get a job earning $30,000 to $50,000 in their first year, they were asking for job applications.”

“We are showing these students that starting salaries can provide a living wage. Additionally, if they want to continue their education, many times these firms will pay their tuition so they could work and earn a degree if that is what they want at the same time,” Callaway concludes.

It may be that the old days, pre-Sputnik, with Career Tech (formerly known as Vo-Tech) programs in high schools, technically trained high school graduates and young people with team skills may soon return to benefit all of Alabama and its developing, modern industrial base.