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Alabama economic developers, educators team for new workforce development strategies

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Top Alabama education officials and economic developers increasingly are on the same page when it comes to workforce development strategies, crafting initiatives that align classroom learning with critical workplace needs.

At a forum sponsored by the Birmingham Business Alliance, Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield and high-ranking state education officials described how the blossoming partnership between developers and educators is paying off and outlined how it can be expanded in the future.

“You really can’t afford to separate economic development and education,” Canfield said at the event.

Canfield said collaboration between the state’s economic development and education communities is a cornerstone of Accelerate Alabama, the strategic economic development growth plan adopted by Gov. Robert Bentley. He said the new level of cooperation on workforce development initiatives is giving Alabama an advantage over other states.

“Other states are beginning to take notice,” he said, adding that some states may even copy the approach.

Dr. Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, said the system already has more than 150 technical training programs and courses, as well as job-training partnerships with around 1,000 companies across the state. ACCS, he said, is ready to move forward with new workforce development initiatives needed by Alabama businesses seeking skilled workers.

“We are committed to listening to business and industry,” Heinrich said. “Business and industry has been a great partner to us.”

The collaboration also includes the state’s K-12 system, which has worked with ACCS to develop dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to get simultaneous credit for college-level courses or advanced technical skills training.

Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama superintendent of education, told the BBA audience about how the leaders of Decatur’s school system responded to a clear community need for a better-prepared workforce. Rather than spending money to develop its own training programs, the system teamed with nearby Calhoun Community College to establish dual enrollment courses, Bice said.

Heinrich said these sorts of partnerships can revolutionize education and workforce development. In 2013, nearly 13,000 Alabama high school students took advantage of ACCS dual enrollment and early college programs, with 3,500 of them receiving scholarships to enter career and technical programs in high-demand occupations. Heinrich said ACCS is developing plans that will expand the number of Alabama students taking dual enrollment courses.

“I would like to see dual enrollment available to every high school student in the state,” Heinrich said. “That would change workforce development forever in Alabama.”

He added that the system is collaborating with the state’s four-year universities on workforce development initiatives and that it plans to expand what he calls the system’s “earn and learn” training programs with Alabama companies.

In one of those programs, students at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa spend time working in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance and taking classes at Shelton in a specialized curriculum designed with input from the automaker. Students earn $14 an hour for their work at the Mercedes plant and most have a guaranteed job there once they graduate. Earlier this year, the program was enhanced.

“I would say to employers, if this is something you are interested in, we will be glad to sit down with you and see if we can develop a program like this,” said Heinrich, who was president at Shelton when the “Mechatronics” program was crafted with Mercedes.

Canfield said the combination of academics and job training fits well with Accelerate Alabama’s focus on 11 key target sectors, particularly those involving advanced manufacturing such as aerospace, automotive and chemicals. Advanced manufacturing facilities provide a wide range of jobs, with posts ranging from engineers to robot technicians and line workers.

“With advanced manufacturing, we’ve got an opportunity for everybody. We’re talking about a full spectrum of career opportunities,” he said.

Read more about the alignment between education and workforce development in Alabama, including additional comments from Bice; Dr. Philip Cleveland, director of career tech workforce development for the Alabama Department of Education; and Brian Hilson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance.

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