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Black Belt lags in business and GDP growth

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It will take a combined effort by education institutions and businesses to tackle persistent workforce, economic and educational development problems in the Black Belt, a new report says.

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s ninth and final report on the rural region details how businesses and state policy can work together to improve the workforce and close the skills-gap challenges there.

Data presented shows most of the 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the EPC, are at or below the state’s average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents. Eight counties were at or below 15 businesses per 1,000 residents.

The report also shows the gross domestic product per capita in each county in 2018, and only three Black Belt counties were above the state’s average.

All of the Black Belt counties were also below the statewide average for personal income per capita by county, which in 2018 was $43,229. In fact, 10 of the 14 counties with the lowest personal income capita in Alabama are in the Black Belt with the lowest being Bullock County.

Stephen Katsinas, director of the center, said it is going to take an “all hands on deck” approach to fix the multitude of problems facing the Black Belt region, but a specific approach for that area’s needs is also required.

“While the goals are the same for urban and suburban Alabama, due to smaller economies of scale, successful education, workforce development and community building approaches will necessarily have to be different to reach Alabama’s Black Belt,” Katsinas said this week. “We must go where the people are to bring hope and connect them to a lifelong learning system that makes work pay.”

Manufacturing has already been lifting “periphery” Black Belt counties, those that sit next to a county that has a large automobile manufacturing plant in it, but more work needs to be done to help those counties farthest away from these plants.

Having a lifelong learning system involving K-12 and post-secondary institutions in the region is needed to train and retain highly skilled workers, the report says.

The state has been creating various programs and initiatives to improve Alabama’s workforce, including creating the new Office of Apprenticeship in 2019.

Alabama Works! has also been working through partnerships with the departments of Commerce and Labor, the Alabama Community College System and Alabama Industrial Development Training to pair businesses and job seekers at all skill levels.

The Black Belt has three workforce councils and Donny Jones of West Alabama Works! said its events go directly into the community to recruit workers and help with their specific employment needs.

“Letting them know that we’re not just going to be in and out, one and done, but letting them know we are a part of the community and that when they see West Alabama Works in their communities, they know that we’re here to help,” Jones said. “The whole thing is developing that relationship with the community and that’s really what’s going to make a difference in the Black Belt.”

Jones also said working with high schools to use career and technical education classes that enable students to not only graduate from high school but leave them ready to immediately enter the workforce is critical for the Black Belt’s growth.

The report also recommends establishing a rural-small schools workforce development fund which would enable grant funding programs longer than the typical three-year cycle; establishing a rural colleges workforce development fund; and encouraging federal officials to include rural dispersion policy provisions in federal grant making.

Marquis Forge is the founder and owner of Eleven86, an artisanal water company based in Autaugaville. He told reporters that even though his factory is only 15 minutes away from populous cities like Prattville or Montgomery, it was still incredibly difficult to get his business started.

Fulfilling basic infrastructure needs like sewage and water was an obstacle for Forge and getting a skilled workforce also took time.

“It was difficult but we gave individuals in the community the opportunity to work in this facility and they have exceeded above and beyond the call of duty,” Forge said.  “And this is a great example that if you give a person the right tools and the right environment and an opportunity, they will excel.”

Forge said he wished the state had a clearer way to help aspiring entrepreneurs like him start their own businesses.

“Lay out a road map that will help individuals and inspire them to be someone versus putting up a detour sign,” Forge said.

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