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In the Weeds on Workforce Development

Today we’re going in the weeds on workforce development.

This is a topic we have covered a lot at Alabama Daily News because it is a key cog in the economic development wheel. Alabama is not a fast growing state, and to attract industry we have to demonstrate that our existing workforce is capable of making companies successful if they locate here. Much time and effort has gone into Alabama’s workforce development model over the decades, and I’d say in the last few years it has really hit its peak in terms of efficiency.

Despite historic challenge, state leaders see ‘upskill’ opportunity amid outbreak

But like everything else these days, the pandemic has impacted the state’s plans.

At the start of 2020, Alabama’s economy was rolling. With a historic low 2.7% unemployment rate in February and tens of thousands of jobs being added every month, the biggest problem for economic and workforce development leaders seemed to be having enough trained workers to fill available jobs. In fact, the state had recently launched an ambitious plan to credential an additional 500,000 workers to meet rising employment demands.

Then, the coronavirus hit and much of Alabama’s economy came to a screeching halt. Unemployment reached 14.7% in April before rebounding slightly to 9.9% by May. Ironically, as many as 500,000 working Alabamians were displaced from jobs either directly or indirectly due to the outbreak.

Instead of seeming ambitious, that workforce development goal is now considered a necessity for the state’s economic recovery and getting hundreds of thousands of Alabamians back to work. And state leaders are optimistic that the planning already in place will put Alabama ahead of the curve once the pandemic ends.

But instead of training workers to meet the high employment demands that existed before the virus, state officials see an opportunity to help current workers become more employable in the post-pandemic economy.

For decades, Alabama’s workforce development efforts consisted of myriad job training programs and schools. There’s our K-12 public school system, which is where all education starts, and the two year college system, which has 24 community colleges scattered throughout the state. There’s also the Alabama Industrial Development Training agency, which works within the Department of Commerce. They have several industry-specific job training centers throughout the state and they are the ones who connect hiring industries with job seeking workers.  Over the years, these different entities have sometimes duplicative missions and turf battles. But the last three governor’s administrations have sought to streamline the system into a more cohesive network.

In recent years, Gov. Kay Ivey has transitioned the state to programs that are intended to work directly with industries to see what skills are needed and shape training efforts accordingly. This “occupational DNA” is mapped out by the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Training in partnership with the Alabama Workforce Council to help set workers on more productive “career pathways.”

Beyond job training, the state is also leveraging federal resources to remove barriers to individuals entering the labor force, such as providing child care and offsetting so-called “benefit cliffs.” This is fascinating stuff.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently approved the state’s plan to use federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act resources to help socially and economically disadvantaged populations. According to Ivey education and workforce adviser Nick Moore, WIOA funds can be used to provide childcare, transportation and housing assistance to those seeking work or job training.

Some individuals can experience a “benefit cliff” upon entering the workforce, when gaining employment means losing forms of means-tested public assistance. Moore said the state is taking advantage of several pots of federal money to set up Individual Training Accounts that can help targeted populations make up for such losses.

Tim McCartney chairs the Alabama Workforce Council, which serves as a conduit between businesses and state agencies to make sure job training efforts are aligned with industry needs.

We spoke to Tim for this Week’s In the Weeds interview, and I found our conversation enlightening.  He said the council’s “AlabamaWorks!” campaign is more important than ever amid high unemployment.

Here’s that interview going In the Weeds on Workforce Development amid COVID-19.

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