Despite historic unemployment, state leaders see ‘up-skill’ opportunity amid outbreak

MONTGOMERY — At the start of 2020, Alabama’s economy was rolling.

With a historic low 2.7 percent 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 percent in April before rebounding slightly to 9.9 percent 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.

“There’s definitely more people looking for jobs today than there were prior to COVID-19,” Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said. He has been leading the state’s economic development agency for nine years.

“Prior to COVID-19, we were celebrating and quietly concerned about the fact that we had more people employed in our state than we’d ever had in any time in our history,” he said. “The labor market was very tight. There weren’t enough workers to go around, but today, we’ve got double digit unemployment again, just like every other state. And in comparison to a number of other states, Alabama has not been hit as hard. And we think that that, hopefully, is a sign that we have been doing a better job of making Alabama’s job market more diverse in terms of the companies and the types of industries that are out there.”

‘Up-skilling’ 500,000 workers

Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Success Plus” goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to the labor force would specifically bring the level of working-age Alabamians with post high school training or degrees from about 43 percent in 2016 to 60 percent by 2025.

COVID-19 hasn’t changed those plans, but rather made them more important, state leaders say.

During a conference call with workforce development officials this week, Ivey stressed the need to press on toward that goal.

“In the COVID-19 environment, Alabama has to pursue a workforce development strategy designed to engage those Alabamians who need support entering or reentering the workforce,” Ivey said on the call. “Folks, we are going to make that happen because it is the right thing to do.”

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.

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. He said the council’s “AlabamaWorks!” campaign is more important than ever amid high unemployment.

“We’re doubling down on that goal,” he said. “Before the virus, we couldn’t find a lot of people to train. Now we’ve got 500,000 people that have the opportunity to take advantage of the time out of work to get training, to get a better job.

“We don’t know when we’re going to get a vaccine. We don’t know, if we get a vaccine, what all the new social rules are going to be. But we have the available people. There’s a lot of them that are not going back to the job they had before the virus, particularly in the service industries. But those are people that had jobs before. They’re certainly trainable and they can get jobs again in the new post-COVID world, so I think it’s a great opportunity for us to use the training systems we have.”

Canfield said Commerce is working with the Alabama Community College System and the Office of Apprenticeship to target the recently unemployed.

Alabama has 24 community colleges scattered throughout the state teaching a wide range of programs that offer students trade skills and credentials. The system announced in May it plans to open campuses this fall for in-person instruction and will also offer more online coursework.

Chancellor Jimmy Baker said that official numbers aren’t in yet, but enrollment this semester appears to be up compared to summer 2019. With unemployment up and the state advertising training opportunities, Baker expects an enrollment increase in the fall as well.

System leaders are planning a series of meetings in north, central and south Alabama to discuss getting a “deeper dive” about what is needed in the communities to recruit jobs.

“The ultimate outcome at the end is to make sure that the schools are expanding to provide the skills training that are in need in that community,” Baker said.

‘Occupational DNA’

For decades, Alabama’s workforce development efforts consisted of myriad job training programs and schools, with sometimes duplicative missions and turf battles. The last three governors’ administrations have sought to streamline the system into a more cohesive network.

In recent years, 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.”

“You know, people’s career pathways are not necessarily a straight line from A to Z,” McCartney said. “We want to build models to where someone can get a two-year certificate and then work in the industry for a while, and while they’re in the industry, they can continue to go to school and get higher and higher levels of competencies.

“So you’re continually building, like a multiple story building. You may start out with just one floor, but by the time you end your career, you can have a 10-story building.”

Workforce recruitment

The Alabama Industrial Development and Training agency is the state’s worker recruitment arm that connects hiring industries with job-seeking workers.

Before the coronavirus outbreak shut down many of the state’s large employers in March, AIDT was searching for and training about 30,000 workers for 133 manufacturers in about three dozen counties.

Director Ed Castile told Alabama Daily News the outbreak hasn’t changed the mission, but it has allowed the agency to retool its strategy and expand its universe of potential workers.

“We can’t lose our focus from the Success Plus plan. We’ve got to have skilled labor and we’ve got to have a lot of them,” he said.

“However, as bad as the coronavirus is, in a way, it gave us access to some people that we didn’t have before, people that were in the hospitality business or retail or both, working two or three jobs to survive at relatively low wages. And now, because they’ve lost those jobs, they have time to go to a two-year college or a training program or get their GED,” Castile said.

“We’re focusing on those people who lost their jobs and really target our marketing to get them interested in a career that might be less vulnerable.”

Canfield said COVID-19 unquestionably affected the approach to workforce development, including the socially distanced mechanics of what is normally hands-on training. AIDT’s ability to find and train workers is closely intertwined with industrial recruitment, and Canfield said some companies the state was pursuing have gone to a “standstill” status.

“But interestingly, we estimated about 60 percent of our recruitment and training projects remained active over the last three months,” Canfield said. “And so, they were not really impacted by COVID-19, other than the safeguards that we had to take as part of that.”

Canfield said the department has two or three new employers it expects to announce in the next two to four weeks.