Starting early, maintaining momentum: What it takes to build a strong workforce

Diversity and equity are important when building talent pipelines so that everyone has a fair chance, especially for those who are already behind.

Starting early, maintaining momentum: What it takes to build a strong workforce

In order to build a strong workforce it is important to consider the needs of workers and students of all ages. The panelists of BBJ’s second installment of their Leadership in Diversity Series for 2023 agreed. They included Autumn Jeter (assistant superintendent of Alabama Board of Education), Waymond Jackson (CEO of Ed Farm), and Cynthia Anthony (president of Lawson State Community College).

These needs range from educating young people to creating an environment for older adults to pursue a career or further their education. Birmingham, along with many other cities, is looking for ways to remain competitive in an economic environment that some believe is challenging to the city. This includes educating its workforce, understanding their needs, and retaining youth and residents.

Early start is important

Jeter says that it's important to begin the process of workforce development earlier than previous generations.

She said that while some of us worked in high-school, more and more of our middle schoolers -- and even elementary students -- want to learn more about building businesses and working. We know that the sooner they are exposed to the realities of life after 18 years or 22 years, and before they enter college, the more prepared they will be. We have to begin early. And, despite our desire to get them started early, today's children want to do so themselves.

Anthony agreed, noting the importance of providing students with an in-depth understanding of their career options.

"Young people must see what they are capable of becoming in their early years. The earlier you show them this, the more impactful it will be. It is vital that they know what opportunities are available because if they don't know about them, they won't have the chance to be successful.

Jackson said that diversity and equity are important factors to consider when creating talent pipelines. This is especially true for communities who have fallen behind. He said that by the time students reach higher education it could be too late. Higher education institutions expect their students to have prior knowledge and experience.

Who is doing things right?

Anthony praised Lawson State and Birmingham Promise as well as Ed Farm, Tech Birmingham, Birmingham Metro School System, and Birmingham metro system leaders for their efforts to target young people sooner through workforce development. She said that awareness and participation in the available programs must be a priority.

She said, 'It's not enough to just have great programs for the workforce'. How do we attract people to programs that work? This is a real challenge, and we have to be creative and strategic in order to overcome it.

Jackson acknowledged that Birmingham already has many essential programs, but said there was a need for a bridge to be built to allow more people to have access to them.

Collaboration is the key

Birmingham is already doing a good job of educating and training its workforce.

Jeter argued that dual enrollment and career tech education are essential to getting students ready for work by the time they graduate. She said that public schools cannot do everything, so they must rely on partnerships.

Jeter stated that the partnerships between K-12 and our two-year colleges, which are spread across the entire state, is where the rubber meets road. We have to make sure that this happens for our students to become work-ready.

Jackson noted that Birmingham's institutions do a great job at collaborating. He added that this is something for which the city does not always get credit. This collaboration allows leaders to better understand the issues at hand and how they can be resolved.

Anthony stated that he had worked in many communities in the state and that the partnerships and collaborations that exist in Birmingham are not necessarily found in other areas, be they large metropolises or rural areas. We have the model that is successful.

She said that real relationships in Birmingham result in economic growth for the local communities.

We don't just sit around the table and talk about what's easy. Anthony said that they would call each other to discuss some of the difficult things to hear. You have to be honest about both your achievements and your challenges if you want to improve.

What do students want to know?

To integrate them in the workforce, it is important to understand the needs of a generation that is increasingly tech-centric.

Jeter stated that the focus is shifting from the notion that college is always required to a more entrepreneurial mindset among students.

She added, "They want immediate, hands-on jobs that they can do right away."

Anthony stated that STEM is booming, and that students are realizing there are other opportunities in health care than nursing. Lawson State has adapted to meet the growing demand for support staff in long-term care facilities.

Jackson says that incorporating technology into the classroom is essential and helps students retain their attention.

He said, 'They are interested in technology.' One of the things they still lack is the knowledge that they have to be the creators and developers of this technology.

Artificial intelligence is the latest technology in education and technology.

Anthony added that AI was being used for programs from robotics and welding.

She said: 'When you start discussing ChatGPT with higher education, it becomes a completely different animal, because there are strong opinions from both sides. "I say, let's use it for something useful." Look at the glass half full, not half empty.

Brain drain: How to stop it

Many metros are also concerned about brain drain, which is the loss of highly educated and trained individuals.

Anthony says that Birmingham needs to offer opportunities for young professionals that are aligned with their interests. She said that other communities are stealing talent from Alabama.

Anthony stated that 'that is what we need to do to keep our talent in Birmingham and our state. They want jobs they like, competitive salaries, and a work-life balance.

Jeter stated that if Birmingham doesn't have the jobs young people want, then it must be built. Jackson described this as a long-term project. He said that the number of bioscience graduates who are available in the region is greater than their job opportunities.

What about older adults

The term 'Great resignation' is well known. All ages of people are reevaluating their career options, going back to college or getting new certifications. Jeter hopes that this will help to address the labor shortage. She says there are other ways to obtain certifications than going through the four year degree process.

"What we see is the same with both our older and younger students." Anthony stated that they are interested in technology.

She stated that older adults realize they must become more tech-savvy in order to compete. She said flexibility is the key to helping older people. The traditional schooling and training schedule of 8 am to 3 pm must be abandoned by institutions and replaced with online and hybrid programs.

She said, "I think that as an institution of higher education, we need to be ready and equipped to offer them this flexibility."