“Workforce development” is such a widely used term that it’s easy for most of us to ignore. Unfortunately, it might be one of the most critical challenges facing Alabama. Between an aging population and a disconnect between education and industry, we may need to change the term to “workforce creation” in short order.

My generation grew up in the middle of America’s manufacturing exodus. For the last three decades, America has seen its “makers” move to lower-wage nations like China and Mexico.

From December 1982 to July 1990, the economy saw one of the largest expansions in American history. More importantly, employment grew by more than 25 percent.

Manufacturers cashed out on the growth by moving to emerging markets in an effort to lower labor and regulatory costs.

Now, those foreign markets are catching up. Many cost and regulatory advantages are decreasing. At the same time, issues of product quality from nations like China are popping up continually.

Manufacturers are coming back to America and Alabama has many of the fundamentals they need. Even so, we struggle in three key areas: Workforce, workforce and workforce.

“When we talk to the folks in business and industry, they’re talking in terms of 50 percent of their workforce could retire today if they wanted,” said Alabama Community College System Chancellor Mark Heinrich. “So far, the economy has kept them in place.”

As the economy improves, retiring workers could prove to be a potentially catastrophic problem for existing businesses and a hindrance to industrial expansion and recruitment.

Normally, we’d simply replace them, but we’ve effectively lost a generation of workers in the same industries we’re trying to recruit.

At the same time as America’s manufacturing exodus, our education system managed to redefine personal and professional success in terms of obtaining degrees. That’s a great benefit to colleges and universities, but it’s a problem when the supply of degrees doesn’t match the job demand of the marketplace.

According to information presented by Alabama State Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter, Alabama’s public colleges aren’t producing enough graduates in the areas of projected economic growth.


Unfortunately, the problem isn’t unique or novel. For example, I majored in both philosophy and classics in college. But for law school, I would have been able to use a dead language to critically explore the meaning of me starving to death as a result of my career choices. Other than my father’s wisdom, nobody bothered to highlight the importance of being able to find gainful employment with my degree.

At the same time, our industry leaders need a longer-term approach to education and professional agility. People aren’t commodities; they’re assets. Investments that incrementally provide workers with the skills to engage the changing industrial environment may actually prove economically preferable to firing and hiring repeatedly.

Alabama’s economy needs all the help it can get. Finding ways to increasingly match our education with our industrial needs is a good place to start.

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