Guest Column: Focusing on the next level of the workforce

To eliminate ‘Help Wanted’ signs, we must shift our focus to labor force participation

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

To gather the fullest employment picture in Alabama — and across the nation for that matter — we must shift our focus to labor force participation.

Alabama’s current unemployment rate is at an impressive and historic low of 2.2%. In fact, almost all of the 10 states with the lowest unemployment rates, Alabama being one of those, are Republican led, which is no coincidence. This news is certainly worth celebrating.

In Alabama, we can also be glad about the 78,000-plus new jobs we have recruited to our state so far during my time as governor. And during the last legislative session, we passed ‘The Game Plan’ package to renew our economic development incentives, so as Alabamians have heard me say: We’re just getting started!

Just yesterday, the Alabama Department of Labor reported that online job ads were up almost 11% from June of last year. To no surprise, registered nurse positions top the chart. The ads also include anything from retail sales positions to software developers to fast food workers to maintenance workers. To put it simply: If an Alabamian can and wants to work, there is a job opening for them.

All of the well-paying jobs pouring into our state at record numbers plus these continuous position openings, coupled with our historically low unemployment rate creates — I’ll call it — a good problem to have. In fact, I have had reporters ask me with all of the new business and industry locating to Alabama and such a low unemployment rate, how can we even plan to fill all these jobs? Well, I say this with full affection, of course, but if the media are turning two positives into a negative, you know you are doing something right.

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I will admit, though, it’s a good question to ask. Workforce development remains a key focus for my Administration and will continue to be until the end of my term as governor in 2026.

However, if the only measuring stick we use is the unemployment rate, we are doing ourselves, our people and our businesses a huge disservice. A 2.2% unemployment rate, according to the Alabama Department of Labor, means we have a bit more than 50,000 folks looking for work. Let me say that again: The unemployment rate is only looking at one segment of our population — those who are actively looking for work. In other words, we’re seeing half the picture. The labor force participation rate, however, is looking at everyone ages 16 and above. That is where we need to shift our focus.

So, we beat level one, and now we’re moving on to level two.

Despite having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a record number of Alabamians working, the percentage of Alabamians participating in the labor force is lower than almost any other state. While we are increasing that by the tens of thousands, we have to change this statistic.

Getting folks off the sidelines and into the labor force is my next priority.

To be clear, I am not saying Alabamians on the sidelines are avoiding work. I believe and will always believe that Alabamians are eager and have pride in a hard day’s work and want to be able to provide for themselves and their families.

Let me add; achieving a 100% labor force participation rate is not the goal. Sixteen-year-olds go to school, and a 66-year-old may want to retire.

A key part of our workforce development efforts is identifying barriers that exist for those on the sidelines who want to work but cannot. Maybe that is childcare. Maybe that is transportation. Maybe that is simply difficulty in shifting from a reliance on government programs to employment.

We are working hard to help eliminate these barriers — whatever they may be — so that more Alabamians can participate in our labor force.

We also know in Alabama, the best way to increase the labor force participation rate is by also increasing our postsecondary education attainment rate. In other words, we are working to support more Alabamians getting skilled up whether by certificates or schooling to fill the jobs that are out there.

Six years ago, I launched my first initiative as governor — Strong Start, Strong Finish. This education agenda focuses on every step of learning from our youngest Alabamians all the way through the workforce. And we will need to tackle both our education, and workforce and economic goals to continually increase our labor force participation rate. That is the Ivey Administration’s new focus.

I believe more Alabamians can achieve their strong finish.

We will increase both our postsecondary education attainment, as well as our labor force participation. Accomplishing these benchmarks will meet the needs of our employers in this growing and evolving market.

Alabama has led the nation in low unemployment. Now, we will shift our focus to labor force participation. In turn, ‘Help Wanted’ signs will come down and more of our Alabama families will prosper.

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