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Improving early education performance key to improving workforce shortage, experts say

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Improving early education performance may be the key to raising the state’s low labor participation rate, according to members of the Alabama Workforce Development Board at a recent meeting.

At 57%, Alabama’s labor participation rate is the third lowest in the country, and for those aged 16 to 24, just 18% are employed, the single-lowest youth labor participation rate in the country. Gov. Kay Ivey, alongside a number of lawmakers and state agencies, have shifted their efforts in recent months to improve labor participation by working to identify and eliminate barriers to employment.

“The state is grounded in two major goals: to (get) 500,000 additional Alabamians first-time post-secondary credentials; a degree, a certificate, an occupational license or an apprenticeship, and the second goal is labor force participation,” said Nick Moore, director of the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation. 

“We want to increase our state’s labor force participation rate which is currently not where we would like to see it be. In order to do that, we’ve got to work on labor force participation together because most of the new jobs that are coming into the state are requiring some form of a post-secondary credential.”

Nick Moore speaks at a meeting of the Alabama Workforce Development Board in Montgomery.

The three most frequently cited barriers of employment, particularly for young people, Moore said, were child care, housing and transportation, barriers that were also identified recently by the newly-formed Labor Shortage Commission. A fourth constant when it came to unemployed Alabamians, however, was also identified to be education, or rather the lack there of.

“We’ve got to recognize that we’ve got about 50,000 to 60,000 high school seniors that graduate every year, and we want to hit a home run with every one of those,” Moore said.

“Out of 100 high school seniors, six years after they graduate, 24 have a bachelor’s degree, so we’ve got to make sure that for that other 76, they’ve got a pathway to a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, an apprenticeship, an occupational license or certification, a post-secondary credential that’s going to prepare them for one of our state’s in-demand jobs.”

As to the importance of education as it relates to improving labor participation, former State Superintendent Joe Morton shared the findings of a new study that suggested targeting Alabama’s youngest students could be the key to increasing post-secondary credential earners across the state.

“That labor participation rate that we all talk about in every presentation is directly related to the ability of young people to graduate from high school and be one of those 500,000 that get that post-secondary credential,” Morton said. He’s now a professor at the University of Alabama. 

“If you can’t do the basics on the front end, like read on grade level at third grade, then the chances of graduating from high school and getting that credential are greatly diminished.”

Delivered to Ivey’s desk on Dec. 1, the study found that of the 702 public schools in Alabama that have third graders, 298 of them have 25% or more of their student body reading below grade level based on results from the spring 2023 ACAP test.

Using data from two elementary schools, which were renamed in Morton’s presentation as Alpha and Omega Elementary, the study also found a strong correlation between poverty and under performance.

At Alpha Elementary, which had a poverty rate among its student body of under 2%, just three out of 109 third graders were reading below grade level, and 3 exhibiting below grade-level math proficiency. At Omega Elementary, however, with its poverty rate of 97%, just 42 of its 92 third graders were reading at grade level, and only five exhibiting grade-level math proficiency.

One solution, Morton suggested, was expanding career awareness initiatives, particularly among Alabama’s youngest students.

“One recommendation is career awareness; you can’t be what you want to be if you don’t know what you can be, and that awareness begins early,” Morton said, 

“In the middle schools, students do begin to think about that pretty seriously. We’ve got a law that says we need to have career awareness for all students, but it’s really not fully implemented at this time, every school’s not doing that.”

Another statistic that correlated heavily with poverty, the study revealed, was absenteeism. As of spring 2023, Alpha Elementary saw an average absenteeism rate of 2%, whereas Omega saw an absenteeism rate of 31%.

“Every employer in this state is worried about people coming to work on time and every day; it begins pretty early, folks,” Morton said.

There are 180 days of school, (so) 31% equals about 55 days being absent. If you come from a high-poverty family, and you go to a school populated by high-poverty students, and you’re only there 69% of the time, what are your chances of being employed by some of the people around this table, or being one of those that gets a credential?”

Cementing the link between poor school performance and poverty, Morton cited two presentations made recently by Department of Human Resources Commissioner Nancy Buckner and Finance Director Bill Poole that came to identical conclusions.

“They did not present on the same day, they did not collaborate on their presentation, but they both said if we don’t solve this poverty issue in Alabama, we’ll never reach our potential,” Morton said. “I think we all can nod our heads that we agree with that, and it all begins at the earliest possible stages with four, five, six and seven year olds.”

Actually targeting Alabama’s youngest students, Moore said, might prove a challenge, however, as federal funding for the AWDB through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act has shrunk significantly over the past five years.

For example, in 2018, WIOA received $16.3 million in federal funding for adult workforce development programs. As the state’s unemployment rate dropped, so too did the federal funding, which is tied to unemployment rates, eventually dropping by 38% in 2023 to $10.1 million.

“The federal formula doesn’t account for the fact that Alabama needs a little bit more resources to help assist with those special populations,” Moore said. 

“We’ve got a great strategy for helping to increase post-secondary attainment and labor force participation for each of those populations, but the federal formula in our budgets that we receive don’t take into account those strategies or that need.”

Potential solutions, Moore suggested, would be for WIOA to reduce administration costs and to expand virtual services to cut costs.

Ultimately, both Moore and Morton concluded that targeting Alabama’s youngest students would likely play a pivotal role in helping improve the state’s labor participation rate, a conclusion that will likely be included in WIOA’s report to the U.S. Depts. Of Education and Labor, due on March 4, and published for public comment on Feb. 9.

“Every employer in this state, whether they know it or not, is dependent on how well third graders do, and that’s something I think that this board can really stress,” Morton said. 

“We’ve got to attack this problem as early as possible, and it can’t just be education solving the problem.”

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