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Alabama targets teens for apprenticeships to ‘fill that workforce pipeline’

Despite record-low unemployment, Alabama is struggling with a low labor participation rate, tied for the third-lowest such rate in the nation at 57.4%.

One remedy, according to Josh Laney, director of the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship, is to recruit more 16, 17 and 18 year olds into apprenticeship programs as a means to “fill that workforce pipeline that is absolutely starving right now.”

Laney shared the AOA’s latest venture into recruiting more teens during a Wednesday meeting of the Alabama Workforce Development Board, a state-appointed body that workshops strategies to improve labor development.

The latest data from the AOA – which aims to expand and promote work-based learning and apprenticeships – shows that of the annual average 3,200 apprenticeships in the state, roughly 57% of them are 16 to 24 year olds. Of those, however, Laney said only about 8% of them are under the age of 19.

“That’s the number we’re going to start attacking,” Laney said.

The Alabama Workforce Development Board meeting at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery.

The process of actually recruiting younger Alabamians for apprenticeships, Laney said, would be multi-faceted, but would begin by breaking down barriers with employers. 

Laney said that the first two barriers were hesitancies from employers to hire 16 or 17 year olds due to the belief that such employees would be more expensive to provide insurance for, and concerns of hiring minors in hazardous or dangerous conditions.

“Those two barriers are not really barriers,” Laney said, adding that his office had already dispelled most of those concerns with Alabama employers.

The last barrier with employers, which Laney said the AOA is currently working to break, was a matter of company policies.

“The biggest and last standing barrier that we’re working on with employers is their own policies; a lot of companies have policies that say (they) won’t hire anybody until the age of 18,” he said. 

“It’s not because they can’t, it’s just because they don’t want to, so that’s a whole different thing that we’ve got to try to work with them; make them feel comfortable and make them understand you’re not putting yourself in any more jeopardy, and this is how you’re going to fill that workforce pipeline that is absolutely starving right now.”

Laney highlighted an existing youth apprenticeship program operating near Birmingham as a model for future programs, the Mercedes-Benz Modern Manufacturing Apprenticeship. Launched this year, the program allows for teens 16 and up to get hands-on experience in vehicle repair and maintenance; paid experience that allows for participants to earn an associates degree while still in high school.

Since its creation in 2019, the AOA has seen some success. In 2021 between October and December, there were 136 new apprenticeships added in the state. That number increased to 236 in 2022 during the same time period, and to 512 in 2023.

Certain demographics have also seen larger participation in apprenticeship programs through strategies employed by the AOA, such as women participation more than doubling over three years from 8% to almost 17%, largely attributable to the establishment of a student nurse apprenticeship program.

Alabama was also recently one of just six states selected to participate in a new youth apprentice program that doles out federal grants toward expanding youth work-based learning programs.

Not all approaches to expanding youth apprenticeships in the state have been successful, however.

Passed in 2019, Senate Bill 295 established a tax credit program that incentivised employers to hire teens 16 and up through youth apprenticeship programs. The program, however, has scarcely been utilized by employers.

“That’s set to sunset now at the end of next calendar year, and we probably won’t ask for that to be renewed,” Laney said. 

“If you’re an employer that’s using it and you want it to be renewed, the Capitol’s that way, go ask them. But we’re not seeing very much uptake on that, and so it hasn’t been successful in really expanding our apprenticeship program in general, or the youth apprenticeship program.”

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