Alabama workforce initiatives aim to address key economic development issue

On the same day that Gov. Robert Bentley was holding a ceremonial signing of the Apprenticeship Tax Credit Act in Montgomery, the economic developers who will help implement the related Apprenticeship Alabama program were discussing that and other workforce development initiatives at a conference in Orange Beach.

Kathy Taylor, former Tulsa mayor and chief executive officer of ImpactTulsa, authenticates the keel of the future USS Tulsa by welding her initials onto an aluminum plate to be placed in the ship’s hull. (Courtesy Austal)

It’s not surprising that workforce is getting so much attention. It is often the first question companies ask when they consider locating a new plant or expanding in the state. The availability of a skilled and trained workforce is a growing concern for companies throughout the country.

Alabama is looking to address this concern through initiatives with both a local and a statewide focus.

At the Economic Development Association of Alabama’s summer conference this week, panelists discussed best practices already in place and new tools on the way that will keep Alabama’s workforce as one of the state’s strongest attributes when it comes to landing businesses.

Sandra Koblas is strategic recruitment manager at Austal USA, an international shipbuilder with a large operation in Mobile. She chairs the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council (SAWDC).

She said Alabama’s AIDT program along with its regional workforce councils and the Alabama Workforce Council are doing many of the things industries want and need.

Austal has invested $400 million in its Mobile plant and employs 4,000 workers building ships for the U.S. Navy.

“Without the partnership we have in Alabama, we would not have been able to meet those manning needs,” Koblas said.

The state has had general education and training programs for years. But the past few years have seen specific job training programs instituted at all levels of education through the regional workforce councils and Alabama Workforce Council, which delivered its first comprehensive report to Bentley last year.

Hyundai workers assemble the latest version of the Santa Fe SUV. (Hyundai)

Hyundai workers assemble the latest version of the Santa Fe SUV. (Hyundai)

Through those councils, industry leaders have told the education and training communities what skills are in need and where  deficiencies exist among workers they have recently hired.

This has allowed the education and training programs to be responsive to those needs.

Mike Ladd is director of administration for Daikin USA in Decatur. He is treasurer of the North Alabama Workforce Development Alliance.

He said NAWDA recognized a critical need for craftsmen in north Alabama. A partnership with community colleges and public schools in that part of the state has been successful in getting young people interested in a trade, and is addressing the need.

Ladd said a growing concern is the large segment of the workforce that is at, or near, retirement age and could choose to leave the workforce at any time.

“There could be a mass exodus of people in their late 50s or early 60s,” he said. “We’ve got to have a plan in place to backfill those jobs.”

Programs like NAWDA, SAWDC and Birmingham’s Central Six Development Council (CSDC) are focused on building the next workforce.

Honda workers at the factory in Lincoln produce the Pilot SUV. (contributed)

Honda workers at the factory in Lincoln produce the Pilot SUV. (contributed)

Waymond Jackson, vice president of workforce development and a member of the CSDC executive committee, said private sector entities and state government departments are working hand-in-hand like never before in Alabama to address workforce needs.

“No time like right now have I seen our alignment throughout the state focusing on workforce development,” he said. “Workforce development is a hot topic right now and it is getting attention in Alabama.”

Koblas said by one measure, Alabama is leading the nation in this area.

The National Fund for Workforce Solutions awards grants to programs that deal effectively with workforce development. She said at a meeting in Baltimore, Alabama was recognized for having four of the 36 National Fund sites, more than any other state.

AIDT has long been Alabama’s silver bullet in economic development. The award-winning worker training program has adapted to the needs of companies that have located  or expanded in the state. Automotive plants like Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai have sung AIDT’s praises, as have Boeing, Airbus and aerospace companies. The Alabama Maritime Training Center in Mobile has been praised by Austal and others.

A new regional workforce council will magnify AIDT’s success by identifying the key industries in what will now be seven regions of the state and intensifying training and education aimed at those industries.

But state leaders know the council has to address more general needs when it comes to Alabama’s workforce.

Boeing in Alabama is doing important work on the Space Launch System, NASA's most powerful rocket. (Boeing)

Boeing in Alabama is doing important work on the Space Launch System, NASA’s most powerful rocket. (Boeing)

That’s where Apprenticeship Alabama and the new tax credit act signed by Bentley come in.“I am proud to sign into law this legislation that will increase the ability of Alabamians to find a job even as they learn new skills,” Bentley said at the ceremonial signing July 26. “The Apprenticeship Tax Credit Act will drive more companies to hire apprentices, who can then get hands-on experience as they learn in the classroom. My hope is that these programs would lead to the apprentices being hired by these companies full time once the students complete their education.”

Under the new act, an employer can receive an income tax credit of $1,000 for each qualified apprentice, capping the cumulative tax credits allowed at $3 million for 2017-2018 and $5 million for each tax year afterward.

“Commerce thanks Gov. Bentley and the Legislature for their combined leadership in the passage of this critical workforce development legislation,” Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said. “The Apprenticeship Tax Credit will play a major role in growing new jobs by encouraging companies statewide to invest in their own programs to advance the skills of Alabama workers. The key to our future economic success heavily relies on equipping Alabama workers with the advanced skills required both today and in the future, and this new tool will play a critical role in securing that bright future.”

Brenda Tuck, the Alabama Department of Commerce’s liaison to the regional workforce development councils, said Apprenticeship Alabama is being developed and should roll out in early 2017 to include the new tax credit incentive and other components that aim to build the craft and trade workforce.