Tuscaloosa County, in west central Alabama, is among the fastest-growing counties in the state. It is home to the University of Alabama and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, the company that started the entire state on the path to a healthy automotive sector. Both of those entities continue to grow.
Within the city of Tuscaloosa, the future is all about Elevate Tuscaloosa, a strategic community plan designed to enhance the city in three areas — economy, experience and education — creating a paradigm shift that will move from a retail to an experience economy market, officials say.
“About 68 percent of millennials and Generation Zs say that they choose where they will live, even before the job,” says Mayor Walt Maddox. “That affects everything — our mass transit, housing, parks, amenities and so much more. There is a need for more knowledge-based jobs that will keep our young people here. Fewer than 10 percent of University of Alabama graduates stay here — and we want to change that. We also want to offer projects that will benefit all residents.
“The experience economy is such that many people are spending more money on experiences than objects,” Maddox continues. “We have to build on what we already have. This is a big shift, and if we want to be competitive, we need to keep up with what makes these changes.”
To pay for several projects in those three areas, the Tuscaloosa City Council recently passed a one-cent sales tax increase that is earmarked specifically for projects under Elevate Tuscaloosa. That tax goes into effect Oct. 1 and is expected to raise the $250 million necessary for the projects.
Workforce development is a major part of the total picture, and it is keeping up and surpassing goals — not only for existing jobs but for other sectors, including knowledge-based, high-tech careers. Since 2014, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama has been the fiscal and managing agent for the Workforce Development Council Region 3, or West Alabama Works.
“It is a business/industry led effort, and we’ve had a lot of success,” says Jim Page, president and CEO of the chamber. “We have several programs, and they have caught nationwide attention.” West Alabama Works recently received the Governor’s Award for Overall Best Regional Workforce Council in 2019. Donny Jones, chamber COO, is its executive director.
And the hard work has paid off. One example is a recent report from YouScience and the chamber that showcased Tuscaloosa high school students’ aptitudes for careers in health care, information technology, construction, manufacturing and distribution logistics. The data was collected from more than 4,100 Tuscaloosa-area high school students who used YouScience’s free career aptitude program to identify how their abilities line up with the local workforce.
Some of the findings: male and female students demonstrated equal aptitudes for high demand jobs; and nearly half of Tuscaloosa students have the aptitude for technical jobs in the health care industry, and nearly twice as many females have the talent for engineering and construction careers.
“We are educating teachers about what’s out here via our Educator Workforce Academies, and career events for our students,” Page says. “We had a signing event, like athletes, for students who accepted jobs with business and industry. Our recruitment efforts will give us a more diverse economy.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.