Tackling Alabama’s worker shortage

The new Alabama Community College System Innovation Center offers state-of-the-art workforce training

ACCS Innovation Center Interim Executive Director Mara Harrison at the grand opening celebration.

America’s supply chain is under enormous strain. That tension extends deep into Alabama, with the state ranking 11th in the country for the largest worker shortage, according to data provided by the Alabama Community College System (ACCS).

Business leaders said rapid training is key to closing the gap – and ACCS listened.

The Alabama Community College System Innovation Center is a $10 million investment supported by the Alabama Legislature that combines the forces of the state’s community colleges, business and industry, and community partners to deliver rapid, industry-recognized, non-credit training within some of Alabama’s most in-demand career fields — hospitality, butchery, commercial driver license (CDL), recreation, heavy equipment, plumbing and facilities maintenance.

The rapid workforce training provided by the ACCS Innovation Center is a key to a stronger Alabama economy, says Mara Harrison, interim executive director of the new center.

“All of us know the strain our nation’s supply chain is under and the stresses on businesses — large and small alike — from current labor shortages,” she says. “In fact, one study found that Alabama has the nation’s 11th-largest labor shortage. With our rapid, industry-recognized training, we will help more Alabamians get good jobs with good wages, which will also help alleviate some of the challenges our overall economy is facing.”

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Alabama leads the pack in this type of effort statewide, Harrison says.

“Currently, Alabama is the only state to execute something of this caliber at a state level,” she says. “Some states are experimenting with how to train and re-train a workforce, but Alabama is the first to model this statewide approach.”

Program participants will earn entry-level credentials and more. They can also use their course work toward a community college degree. Students can start training at home and then meet for in-person labs at a regional ACCS location to assess their skills. Once students complete the trainings, they are job ready.

“Every Alabamian deserves an opportunity to succeed in the state’s economy,” says Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, which has 24 community colleges in more than 130 locations across the state. “It’s not always that someone needs two years at the community college to make them have the skills viable for the labor market, so we have found a way to expedite the training so we can move people more rapidly into the market. The Innovation Center is where we house people to devote to the process of developing curriculum for training, no matter what it may be, so that residents can take those credentials and either get to work or get promoted with the right skills for their job.”

From left: Dr. Vicki Karolewics, president of Wallace State Community College; Dr. Cynthia Anthony, president of Lawson State Community College; Mara Harrison, interim executive director of the Innovation Center; Jimmy H. Baker, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System; Mark Colson, president and CEO of the Alabama Trucking Association; Rosemary Elebash, president of the Alabama Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

The Innovation Center has already collaborated successfully with the Alabama Tourism Department to help workers train for and find jobs in Alabama’s $16 billion hospitality industry. The program, hosted by Coastal Alabama Community College in Bay Minette, was deemed a great success by ACCS. All graduates of this pilot training project were matched with jobs, and 100% of students were hired after the completed training.

“It was interesting,” says Synthoria Cooley, a student in food and beverage. “I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about the kitchen. I’ve only been doing prep cook, so I learned about serving, hosting, everything. I never experienced going to college, and it’s just the one day. It made me feel great about myself.”

No matter where students are across the state — even if they are not close to a community college — they can take part in ACCS Innovation Center courses, Harrison says.

“This approach removes the geographic barrier to training and allows anyone, anywhere in the state to earn the credentials they need to get a good job,” she says.

The Center was born from a realization that most jobs today require at least a little post-secondary training, but many graduates are opting out of even community college studies. A staggering 42% of graduating seniors in 2020 — the first pandemic graduates — did not enroll in any post-secondary training, Harrison says.

“This is happening at the same time that a majority of available jobs require some type of post-secondary training,” she says. “The Innovation Center addresses this gap, along with many others in Alabama’s workforce. The Innovation Center offers the ACCS credential that gets students ahead — whether that’s on a path straight to work, or whether they use that credential as credit toward more training at their local community college.”

In addition, Harrison says, the impetus behind the concept of the Innovation Center included daily conversations with business and industry about the growing need for skilled workers in all of Alabama’s industry sectors.

“To assist in meeting Governor [Kay] Ivey’s Success Plus goal of 500,000 newly credentialed individuals in Alabama’s workforce by 2025, and specifically to meet business and industry’s labor needs in a rapid manner, the concept of the ACCS Innovation Center was born,” Harrison says.

Initial trainings began in January 2022 with a headquarters base in Decatur, but, as Harrison points out, course delivery is flexible and can take place anywhere in the state.

“Programs are delivered in two parts — virtual instruction for theory, how-to tutorials featuring Alabama companies and Alabama workers, and an in-person lab that mimics the workplace where skills are tested for mastery,” she says.

From left: Mara Harrison, interim executive director of the Innovation Center; Jorge Rueda Benavides, Alabama Construction Alliance and Civil Engineering professor at Auburn University; and Billy Norrell, CEO of Alabama Associated General Contractors.

Each course created through the Innovation Center is required to have direct input and partnership with relevant business and industry associations so the Innovation Center will always be attuned to meeting real-time, relevant needs for Alabama’s workforce.

“Engagement in the development of curriculum and buy-in from business and industry is crucial in this initiative’s success,” Harrison says.

One industry covered in the Innovation Center’s pilot year is CDL — an area that is facing widespread shortages, says Mark Colson, president and CEO of the Alabama Trucking Association.

“America’s commercial trucking industry is facing a critical shortage of about 80,000 professional drivers,” he says. “Here in Alabama, trucking already provides 112,000-plus jobs — about one out of 15 in the state. These are high-quality jobs offering great pay and endless career path opportunities.”

Colson says he is proud to partner with ACCS to ramp up efforts to attract and connect job seekers with the training they need to enter the trucking industry.

“The ACCS Innovation Center is the right program to supercharge the availability of CDL offerings in our state and enhance the existing programs that are already preparing our future workforce,” he says.

Rachel Burchfield is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

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