In 2018, the state of Alabama set an ambitious goal of creating 500,000 highly skilled workers by the year 2025. This number is what forecasters estimate is needed for the state to replace retiring workers, support existing companies, and recruit new industries.
Alabama cannot afford to fall short of this target.
The state is already struggling to help existing employers find qualified workers, while other states are routinely trying to lure Alabama businesses away. Some may leave if Alabama cannot supply them with an able workforce. Others may go out of business.
Two years into this workforce development campaign, the Business Education Alliance, along with our partners from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and A+ Education Partnership, sought to measure the state's progress towards reaching this goal.
We estimated for Alabama to reach this goal, 60 percent of its working population would need to have either a college degree or a high-value credential beyond a basic high school diploma. Yet, as of 2017, only 43 percent of the Alabama workforce had such credentials.
This discovery led us to several questions: Are current measurements to determine college and career readiness meaningful? Are workforce preparedness systems aligned with emerging workforce needs? Are schools, communities and businesses collaborating to the extent necessary to ensure students are graduating with the credentials they need to find work where they live? Is merely setting a goal of creating 500,000 workers enough?
Currently, the answer to these questions is no. In fact, if the state continues on its current path, Alabama will fall nearly 200,000 workers short of its 500,000 goal.
To change course, Alabama must develop a continuous improvement model of education and workforce development. It must define what workforce preparedness programs matter and be deliberate about building the education infrastructure needed to help all children learn and become college and career ready.
Lawmakers can begin this work by appropriating additional dollars to expand access to Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program as well as investing other resources to increase the number of math and reading coaches available to help struggling students. Today’s fifth-graders are the fourth-graders who scored last in the nation in math and almost last in reading. They will graduate high school in 2027. Will they be college and career ready? Alabama must put in place a stronger, more cohesive, and more rigorous career and technical education network. Too many students are graduating unprepared for what's next in their life. Reaching the state's goal of creating 500,000 workers will mean little if graduates cannot apply the credentials they are earning into good-paying jobs.
Gov. Kay Ivey understands the urgency in refocusing the state’s workforce preparedness efforts. Through her Strong Start, Strong Finish initiative, the governor has thrown the full weight of her office behind a multi-agency, public and private effort to restructure the education and workforce system to meet this goal. Encouraging signs are all around.
Alabama has done this before.
Six years ago, BEA predicted that if the state could increase its graduation rate from 80% to 90% by 2020, Alabama's economic output would be $430 million higher than it otherwise would be. Not only did Alabama meet this goal early, but the resulting revenue gained from the increased number of individuals joining the workforce helped Alabama exceed those economic predictions.
This time, if successful, reaching the state's workforce preparedness objectives will be more than a boon for the state's economy. It will also lead to better pay and career opportunities for all Alabamians, including your neighbors, your children and your grandchildren.
Dr. Joe Morton is the chair and president of the Business Education Alliance of Alabama. Jay Love is BEA’s Vice President. Read BEA’s most recent report, Education Matters, at beaalabama.com.