Preparing students for a career

Some standout members in Alabama's higher education institutions share their thoughts on the role of higher education in workforce development

Editor’s Note: For this higher education issue of Business Alabama, we asked some of our college partners to identify a standout member of their faculty or administration. Here’s who they are and some of their thoughts on the role of higher education in workforce development.


Students need jobs; industry needs workers. So, Alabama’s higher education — especially its community college system — seeks to bridge those twin needs.

“Higher education is the bolt that should connect residents to valuable opportunities in business and industry,” says Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker, “but many times higher education programs are too expansive or too off target for what the workforce needs.

“The Alabama Community College System is focused on workforce development from a perspective of the resident’s return on investment. Whether a resident goes from high school through college to a career or is already in the workplace and seeking to upskill, the Alabama Community College System is committed to meeting residents where they are so that they can achieve the level of success that allows them to enjoy a quality of life of which they can be proud.”

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Faculty members throughout the system and beyond echo Baker’s words.

As a finance professor and director of the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development at the University of North Alabama, J. Doug Barrett says, “A lot of our initiatives are geared toward relationships with the local community. From the university’s standpoint, we’re creating more opportunities for our students. We look at workforce development as one of our primary roles.”

In a program funded by the Daniel Foundation, some 80 UNA students were placed in high-level internships across northern Alabama, Barrett says. They consulted on strategic projects and often put their social media expertise into action on behalf of their company.

“It’s been very good,” says Barrett. “A lot of our local firms have benefitted. Moreover, several students went on to work full time in the companies or nonprofits where they interned.”

The nursing program at Wallace State Community College also works closely with the surrounding community. The program “role models professionalism with a strong work ethic, and develops unique programs tailored to the needs of the facilities,” says Nursing Department Chair Deborah “Pepper” Hoover. “It is essential to listen to the needs of industry and creatively respond with program development to assist partners.”

To meet that goal, WSCC has partnered with University Hospital, creating employee scholarships to help build the current workforce and develop nurses of the future. Starting next year, the college will offer evening classes in practical nursing. And it partners with four-year colleges and universities so that students can make progress toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing while studying at the community college.

For Mike Perry, dean of the College of Military Studies and Leadership at Columbia Southern University, the interchange between college and career is critical. “The convergence of technology and society and globalization and all the disruption across the world and the workforce” require preparation. “And there is no better place to prepare workforce than in higher education.”

The goal, Perry says, is “not to tell people what to think but we have to develop creative ways how to think. We have to know how to think critically — to build a resilient workforce that can work through all the disruption.”

Perry spent more than three decades in the U.S. Air Force before joining Columbia Southern, and he values the overlapping careers. “Our militaries are some of the greatest leadership factories on the face of the planet. We’ve been doing that since the Revolutionary War.” Building on that example, his CSU programs also develop leadership skills. And those skills are in high demand in industry.

Joe Johnson, director of workforce development at Wallace Community College, appreciates the opportunity community colleges have to build workforce.

“The community college is truly the community’s college,” he says. They are involved in the community they serve, engaged with chambers of commerce and industry partners. And when those partners have workforce needs, the community colleges can respond quickly — developing programs and writing grants to help with funding. 

And the community colleges offer a wide array of options to students, he notes. Some students may jump right into a two-year academic program and move on to a four-year university. But other students may have limited time or resources — they may need a job now to support a family. For them, he notes, there are options like a short certificate in a specific skill. That gives the student a credential that can lead to a job. And with stability of a job and income, the student can come back for a long certificate.

“They can get into workforce and provide for themselves and their family and then come back for more,” Johnson says.

When they work their way into a degree program, they move beyond specific hands-on skills like welding or HVAC, finding themselves in English, math and speech classes as well.

“Our young students may not recognize it, but hopefully they will move up within whatever company they go with. That’s when math and English and speech are so important. You’re not always going to be behind a welding mask. When you’re a manager, you have to be able to communicate. If you lead a project, you have to have the math skills. In a bid or board meeting, you have to be able to explain what your company can do.”

Jean Ann Helm Allen, associate professor and department chair of kinesiology at the University of North Alabama, sums it up.

“I believe the ideal role for higher education is provide substantial opportunities for student participation in work-based learning. The University of North Alabama has centered our entire quality enhancement plan around this topic, ‘Preparing the Pride: Experiential and Work-Based Learning,’ to do this very thing. We want students to graduate with the skills necessary to enter their chosen fields as experienced as possible.”

Who are the exceptional educators:

Jimmy Baker

Chancellor, Alabama Community College System

The dynamic transformation of student experiences and training at Alabama’s 24 community and technical colleges is led by Jimmy H. Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

In just five years as chancellor his combined five decades across every aspect of education have resulted in state-of-the-art workforce centers and robust infrastructure in every region, rapid training classes in several high-demand industries, nationally recognized apprenticeships, top academic instruction, additional athletics programs, top-notch campus security and more.

Every advancement is based on one core belief: that Alabama’s community colleges are the most affordable, accessible and practical avenue for all residents who want to strengthen their quality of life.

J. Doug Barrett

Professor and Chair of Finance Department, University of North Alabama

Dr. J. Douglas Barrett is professor and chair of the University of North Alabama Finance Department in the Sanders College of Business and Technology and also serves as director of the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development.

Winner of this year’s Dr. Lawrence J. Nelson Outstanding Teaching Award, Barrett was honored for his commitment to innovation and love of learning. Students cite the challenging nature of his teaching as a particular plus.

Honored in years past for his research, scholarship and service, he says this year’s teaching award is particularly meaningful to him because teaching is fundamental at UNA. At UNA, teaching is the primary mission, he says. “This does not diminish the functions of scholarship or service, as they help support teaching. That said, teaching is at the center of everything we do. This recognition is humbling.”

Barrett earned his undergraduate degree in finance at the University of Montevallo and both master’s and Ph.D. degrees in applied statistics at the University of Alabama.

David Campbell

President, Northeast Alabama Community College

Dr. David Campbell has served as president of Northeast Alabama Community College (NACC) since 2001. Under his leadership, the Aspen Institute has named the college among the top 10% of the approximately 1,200 community colleges in the United States. Northeast has received this recognition for five years. CNN/Money and each placed Northeast in the top 20 of American community colleges. 

Campbell in particular has expanded the college’s workforce and STEM programs, culminating in the addition of a state-of-the-art mathematics, science and engineering technology center and a health/workforce complex. Under his leadership, the college was one of the first in Alabama and the South to be totally Wi-Fi enabled.

Among his recognitions, Campbell had been named Citizen of the Year in both DeKalb and Jackson counties and he has won honors from academic organizations including a national service award from Phi Theta Kappa.

He has served as president of the Alabama Community College Association and the Alabama Community College Presidents’ Association. He serves as chair of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority and chair of the DeKalb/Jackson Counties Industrial Development Board. As chair of the Jackson County EDA, he was involved in the local efforts that brought Google to Alabama. 

A native of North Alabama, he is a graduate of Auburn University with a master’s from Florida State University and Ph.D. from the University of Texas.

Jean Ann Helm Allen

Associate Professor and Department Chair, University of North Alabama

Jean Ann Helm Allen is department chair and associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Alabama. She holds undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees, all from the University of Alabama, where she was honored for her teaching as a doctoral student.

She began teaching at UNA in the fall of 2013 and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in health and physical education pedagogy. She is passionate about teaching her students how to apply knowledge from the classroom into their careers, specifically related to working with individuals with disabilities.

In the past five years she has been the recipient of the University of North Alabama’s Lawrence J. Nelson Award for Outstanding Teaching by Faculty, The College of Education and Human Sciences Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award, and this year, the Phi Kappa Phi Eleanor Gaunder Excellence in Teaching Award.

She is married to Jon Allen, a fellow faculty member at UNA, and they have three children. She is an avid reader and enjoys working out, living out in the country, and spending time with her family at their lake house.

Deborah “Pepper” Hoover

Chair of the Nursing Department, Wallace State Community College

Deborah “Pepper” Hoover joined Wallace State in 1990 and became chair of the nursing department in 2010.

Early in November, she will be inducted into the Alabama Nursing Hall of Fame, one of just eight nursing professionals so honored.

“I am extremely honored to be inducted into the Alabama Nursing Hall of Fame,” Hoover said. “I am passionate about nursing and blessed to be a part of a field of health science that touches the lives of so many people when they need us most. I’m especially proud to play a part in educating future nurses and grateful for my colleagues in the field and in education who are also dedicated to providing the best opportunities for our students.”

Last year, Hoover was appointed to the Alabama Board of Nursing to represent education. In her local community, she has worked to help establish the first hospice in Cullman County, has served on numerous boards including the United Way of Cullman County, Good Samaritan Clinic and more.

Her many honors include an award for outstanding teacher at UAB, where she taught before joining Wallace State, and a Chancellor’s Award from the community college system.

Joe Johnson

Director of Workforce Development, Wallace Community College

Joe Johnson is director of workforce development at Wallace Community College. During his 13 years at Wallace, Johnson has served as a career and technical education faculty member, division director and currently in the workforce development division.

Prior to joining Wallace in 2010, he worked in the construction industry for 19 years, serving as a quality control manager, training developer and training coordinator.

Johnson is an Alabama native and holds a master’s degree in career and technical education, with a focus on leadership from Athens State University.

His passion is developing and providing training that will connect people with employment opportunities, as well as providing opportunities for growth for individuals within their current career field.

When not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two sons and playing golf.

Mike Perry

Dean, College of Military Studies and Leadership, Columbia Southern University

Chief Master Sgt. (Ret.) Mike Perry joined Columbia Southern University in August 2023, serving as the dean of the College of Military Studies and Leadership.

Before joining Columbia Southern, Perry spent 31 years in the military, serving at the highest levels of the U.S. Air Force as the Air Force first sergeant special duty manager where he was responsible for the overall policy, guidance, training and development of more than 2,900 personnel supporting missions around the world.

He served as advisor to the 19th chief master sergeant of the Air Force supporting more than 485,000 service members and their families. Perry’s military career included various assignments leading teams in operations, logistics, health care and human resources. He has deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan and other overseas contingency operations.

Perry earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Wayland Baptist University and a master’s degree in organizational management with a concentration in human resources from the University of Arizona Global Campus.

Nedra Bloom is a Mobile-based writer/editor for Business Alabama.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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