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Workforce, graduate retention topic of summit

MOBILE, Ala. – Workforce retention is a twofold issue in Alabama — retaining talent educated in Alabama and encouraging Alabamians to join and stay in the workforce.

Both were topics Thursday at the Governor’s Summit on Talent Retention and Work-Based Learning in Mobile.

“When we think about what it’s going to take to recruit and retain the workforce today, to say it’s a competitive environment, is putting it really, really lightly,” Danny Markstein, founder and chairman of Markstein, a creative communications agency. “If you’re not thinking differently about this, you’re not even fighting a fight in a war for talent that’s unprecedented in our nation.”

Alabama is home to 14 public higher education universities, 22 community colleges and the nation’s fourth lowest unemployment rate. Still, national workforce trends are impacting labor force participation which currently sits just under 57% in Alabama.

The United States workforce has only grown by 20% in the last 30 years, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. The fastest growing age bracket of increased workforce participation is people over 65, with people ages 55-64 being the second fastest growing age group. Every other age bracket is declining from a participation perspective.

The Alabama Commission on Higher Education reported in 2020 that only 50% of bachelor’s degree recipients were employed in Alabama five years after graduation and less than half of all master’s graduates stayed in the state.

When broken down by college major, 50% of bachelor’s degree earners in education, computer and information sciences and health professions remained in Alabama, while less than 40% of all students earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering and biomedical sciences remained in the state, according to ACHE’s 2022 Employment Outcomes Report.

“We, unfortunately, export a lot of our talent,” Robin McGill, deputy director for academic affairs at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education said. “This research inspired the idea to put some resources behind retaining Alabama.”

According to ACHE’s survey of students, career and economic factors like job opportunities, potential salaries and cost of living ranked the highest in importance to determining where they would plan a future post-graduation. Alabama ranked highest in opportunities to continue education, access to outdoor activities, the state’s natural environment and proximity to family. Quality of K-12 education, acceptance towards people of diverse backgrounds and potential salary and provided benefits were among the lowest ranked.

In 2022, there were a total of 257,817 students enrolled in some form of higher education in Alabama.

Meanwhile, the recent Alabama Survey of the Unemployed and Underemployed sited lack of transportation, personal health, family responsibilities, the lack of skills and qualifications and childcare as the largest obstacles facing Alabamians who seek employment earlier this year.

Markstein said a recent survey showed that every year in the greater Birmingham area, there are 1,000 less graduates with backgrounds in IT than there are openings for those jobs.

“You can tell year over year that it creates a real problem in terms of supply versus demand for these jobs,” he said.

“… We have to think differently about how we recruit and retain workforce talent,” Markstein said. “For 14 months during the pandemic, we had 5% month over month increases in salary starts, it’s not sustainable. If I’m attracted to a job just for the number but it doesn’t have something that I also need, like benefits or insurance for my family, I’m not a long-term solution.”

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