Terry Waters took over as the new head of workforce development for the state in November.
The Governor’s Office of Workforce Development comes under the administration of the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, the network of two-year colleges where much of the state’s worker training takes place.
Waters, a 64-year-old former Alabama Power executive, is Postsecondary’s new senior executive director for workforce and economic development. He headed the utility’s Birmingham and Tuscaloosa divisions in the ’90s and retired in 2010 as head of customer service and marketing. In 2011, Waters was interim executive director and chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. He also was chairman of the Region Three Workforce Development Council‚ one of 10 regional councils that give input into local workforce needs.
The existence of a qualified pool of workers is near the top of the list in terms of priorities companies are evaluating when they are selecting a site location for a new plant or expansion. They also want to have metrics about the school systems. And they want information about the number of workers and the types of positions they currently occupy, information about median wages and the number of underemployed workers — those who possess the abilities and skills to perform at a higher level. They want to know what the pool of workers is like. The wages that are currently being paid and the number and percentage of underemployed workers: all of that goes into the equation.
When you look at the network of colleges, 25 of them, conveniently located to those in need, and the fact that we have 152 career tech programs with nearly 4, 000 individual course offerings, the very presence of that training availability is an enormous asset to the state of Alabama and puts us in a key role in helping to provide for that pipeline of workers necessary for new and existing industries.
These institutions are being utilized. They’re not sitting idle. These facilities touch 250, 000 Alabamians a year. In some areas of the state there are enormous transportation challenges for people, particularly in rural areas, for students to travel long distance to receive education and training. That we have this network of colleges near where they live is an asset to training and workforce development in our state. A lot of the folks who get training from us work other jobs. Many of them are trying to support themselves and a family, and being able to receive that training in a practical way is important to Alabamians.
We have a number of programs that have been highly successful in helping to advance workforce development. One of the most successful is a dual enrollment program that this year gave technical scholarships that enable 3, 300 high school students to take college level tech courses and concurrently receive high school and college credits.
We have almost 12, 000 students in dual enrollment, and a lot of them take academic courses to enable them to receive both college and high school credit, for either an associate degree or going on to a four-year college. They take courses, for example, in automotive maintenance, aviation maintenance, robotics or pneumatics — technological training that a student can use after graduation or, going on to a four-year college, use to go into a related field like engineering.
We will be seeking ways to greatly expand the dual enrollment scholarships in coming years. Now we are only able to offer scholarships to about 10 percent of the students interested in them. But if funding is available, next year we would like to increase that to 45 to 50 percent of eligible students who will be able to participate.
Some areas of the state cannot afford to pay for that cost. Right now that money comes from an appropriation in our annual budget from the Legislature. We turn to our regional councils to help identify the need that exists for those scholarships in that region. Those councils get direct information from the businesses and industries in those areas to help guide our allocation of those funds. The need greatly exceeds the funds we have available.
One possibility is for the state to provide increased levels of funding through our budget. Other sources might be available, too. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen some funds coming from the private sector. Those discussions are in the very early stages. We are exploring whether there can be some private sector funds available to us as well.
Additionally, within the two-year system, we have the Alabama Technology Network, with 15 centers and four office locations throughout the state. The Alabama Technology Network can provide assistance for business and industry in employing new technologies, training of workers and finding ways to become more productive and competitive.
Workforce development and training needs vary significantly from one area of the state to another. We have 10 regional Workforce Development Councils that are business led and employer driven. They are our eyes and ears in those regions. The input they provide is extremely valuable in helping us to ensure our technological training is in line with regional employers’ needs.
That’s why we need to be sure these regional councils are efficient and worth the time it takes for members to participate in those councils. One of my priority goals is to pump new life and energy into those regional councils and insure that employers see the benefits and value of participating. That comes from having served as chairman of one of those councils and having first-hand knowledge of the challenges and opportunities that exist when regional councils perform effectively.
We know that the national and state economies are emerging from a recession. But we have been fortunate in Alabama to land new high tech industries. Mercedes was a pivotal point in the history of Alabama. Alabama workers proved, with the landing of that industrial recruitment gem, that they possessed the work ethic and the ability to master the skills necessary to perform in highly technical and demanding jobs. There is demand for workers in these new industries, and there is also a need to backfill a lot of positions in existing industries that have opened because of workers who moved into new industries.
Part of my responsibility is to work closely with the Department of Commerce, with the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and other organizations to be sure that the Department of Postsecondary Education is doing all that it can to support their efforts in recruiting new industry and helping to retain our existing industry.
When I served as the western division vice president for Alabama Power, a lot of my responsibility was focused on involvement in community and economic development. While I was in that role, I served as chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority and chairman of the Region Three Workforce Development Council.
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.
Interview by Chris McFadyen