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Bill Britt

Opinion | Finally, something that might work

Bill Britt

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Expanding workforce development and rural broadband could very well be the most significant accomplishments of the 2019 Legislative Session.

Both actions have the potential to change Alabama’s future by fostering middle-skill jobs and connecting rural communities to the global economy.

The education budget passed in the Senate includes a $6 million increase for workforce development programs administered by the Department of Commerce and an additional $900,000 for career tech initiatives in the K-12 system.

“In the midst of record low unemployment, many states are nonetheless struggling with ongoing skills gaps — shortages of workers with the right skills for in-demand jobs,” reported Governing Magazine.

“One reason these gaps exist is underinvestment in career and technical education,” wrote Anne Kim Vice President of Domestic Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Of the more than $139 billion in annual federal student aid spending for higher education, just $19 billion goes to career and tech ed.”

An additional $6 million for workforce development programs and nearly a million for career tech initiatives could be a game-changer for many Alabamians.

The Alabama Workforce Council is the guiding hand behind the push for career tech training.

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Beginning in 2014, Zeke Smith, executive vice president of Alabama Power, and George Clark of Manufacture Alabama spearheaded the council. In June of last year, Smith and Clark passed the torch to Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction Sandra Koblas with Austal USA.

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The strong public-private partnership has proven to be the engine that is propelling workforce development forward.

During the recent debate over a lottery, a real opportunity was overlooked. Instead of funneling money from a lottery to the general fund and pittance to education, the proceeds from a lottery should go to scholarships for occupational credentials for middle-skill jobs. Middle-skill jobs are those that require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree like health care, IT, welding and long-haul trucking.

“Middle-skill jobs account for 59 percent of Alabama’s labor market, but only 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level,” according to a survey by the National Skills Coalition.

The Legislature’s increase for workforce development programs may prove to be one of its wisest investments in Alabama’s future.

Likewise, lawmakers’ agreement to fund a multi-million dollar investment in rural broadband could be a win for rural communities and beyond.

“Internet connectivity is a major issue in our rural areas and impacts everything from education to economic development,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston. “Children now rely on the internet both at school and at home and our goal is to make sure that children in rural areas have the same educational opportunities as those in more urban areas.”

House Bill 400, sponsored by State Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Cullman, is part of a comprehensive effort to get broadband infrastructure in place for communities that lack broadband internet connection. Shedd’s legislation allows a coalition of electric providers to come together to offer high-speed broadband access in rural communities across the state.

Senator Clay Scofield sponsored the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act which provides grants for projects to increase broadband across the state. Scofield’s bill passed the Senate with $30 million in grant funding, but those funds were cut to around $8 million in the House. A joint conference committee will have final say.

Taken together, the rural broadband act and funding for workforce training can begin a seismic shift toward a brighter, more prosperous future for the people of our state.

Amidst all the pandering, self-dealing and chaos in the State House, these two acts could be the 2019 Legislative Session’s greatest achievements.

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