Rosemary Elebash and Jeff Lynn: Wanted: Skilled workers to ensure Alabama’s success

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Ask business people to rank their top problems, and you find a consistent pattern. Taxes and regulations usually battle each other for the top spot. Finding qualified workers consistently ranks No. 3.

These results — from monthly surveys of members of the National Federation of Independent Business — illustrate a critical problem in our country and a major roadblock to economic growth.

To put it simply: We have plenty of people who need jobs. We have plenty of businesses that have jobs to fill. But the available people and the available jobs don’t always line up. Too many prospective employees lack the necessary skills for jobs that are in demand.

This skills gap is crippling to individuals who miss out on job opportunities. But it is also crippling to business and economic growth.

Companies that lack an adequate supply of workers can’t succeed and grow to their full potential. Rather than moving forward, they are often forced to divert resources and time in a never-ending cycle of trying to hire and train new workers.

This is an issue for all Alabama employers, but especially for small businesses.

Large corporations at least have human resources departments to help recruit qualified workers. At a small business, the person who places the help-wanted ad is very likely the same person who takes out the trash and signs the checks: the owner.

Despite Alabama’s remarkable success in landing big manufacturing projects over the past 25 years, most of our jobs are created by smaller, existing businesses. Day after day, our state’s lack of qualified workers is costing small businesses the ability to create and fill new jobs.

This hinders our state’s economic growth.

Fortunately, Alabama business leaders, economic developers, educators and elected officials have set out on a new course to make sure our businesses have the workforce they need to thrive, now and in the future.

Our community college system is working more closely than ever with the business community, economic developers, and other education partners to ensure students learn the skills that employers need. The system is working hand-in-hand with workforce development councils to align programs with employers’ needs in different communities  across our state.

Community colleges are also working with K-12 schools, four-year universities, the state Commerce Department, AIDT and others to ensure seamless transitions between workers and training and jobs. We are all working hard to be more nimble and quick, responding to technological changes that continually alter the workplace.

Fostering these efforts is a new collaboration called AlabamaWorks, which is a business-driven workforce development system encompassing all of the state’s job-training and placement services. A one-stop-shopping website (AlabamaWorks.com) links employers, job seekers and students to the resources they need.

A key challenge is making Alabamians aware of the resources – and the opportunities — that exist.

Businesses need to know where to go for solutions for their workforce needs. High school students and adults need to know where to go to get the skills they need to succeed. And we all need to appreciate the varied avenues to success.

Most of us know today that a high-school education alone is not enough. But too few of us appreciate the full range of career options that fall somewhere between a high school diploma and a four-year college degree.

In Alabama, AIDT facilities in Decatur and Mobile recently hosted hundreds of high school students to highlight today’s technical and manufacturing careers, many requiring two years of training or less.

These events showcased Alabama’s great training facilities, but also served as a reminder that the facilities are only as valuable as the people they train.

“It does no good if we have the jobs and the training facility, if we don’t have the people and if our young people are not being interested and attracted to high-tech manufacturing,” State Sen. Arthur Orr said at the Robotics Technology Park near Decatur.

Manufacturing jobs are just one example of our workforce development needs. Businesses across the state of Alabama can tell stories about projects stalled and plans delayed because they were unable to find qualified workers.

At the NFIB and the Alabama Community College System, we understand the need, and we are committed to taking the steps necessary to make sure we have the right people in the right pipelines for the right jobs.

If we fail to do so, we are jeopardizing the future success of our businesses, our people, and our state.

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Rosemary Elebash is the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business in Alabama. Email: Rosemary.Elebash@nfib.org.

Jeff Lynn is the senior executive director of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System. Email: Jeff.Lynn@accs.edu.

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