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Labor force participation in Alabama’s Black Belt lags behind state, nation

Looking at the area over time, it’s clear that the Black Belt lags behind the rest of the state and country.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(Via University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center)

The labor force participation rate in Alabama’s Black Belt region has been 20 percentage points lower than the rest of the state and the nation for nearly three decades, a report released Monday by The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

That fact didn’t surprise several employment experts in a briefing on the report with reporters Monday, who described work being done to expand existing work training programs and to get the needed participation from local leaders in those communities.

Between April 20 and July 20 of this year, there was an uptick in he numbers of people living in the Black Belt who were participating in the labor force, rising from approximately 273,000 people to just more than 284,000.

The report’s researchers hypothesis that the recent increase may be due to people returning to work to help support their families during the COVID-19 pandemic, but looking at the area over time, it’s clear that the Black Belt lags behind the rest of the state and country. Those who are considered to be active in the labor force are those who are either working or seeking employment.

Between 2010 and 2019 Alabama saw a marginal increase in labor force of about 2 percent, while the country as a whole experienced an increase of approximately 6 percent. Alabama’s Black Belt region, however, saw a decrease of more than 5 percent during that time, according to the report.

In 2010 the Black Belt region had almost 300,000 people in the labor force, which dropped to around 282,000 people, according to the report.

The report, titled “The Black Belt’s Labor Force Participation Lags Behind the Rest of Alabama & the Nation,” is the latest in the center’s eight-part series, “Black Belt 2020.”

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“The data is more alarming in some ways, but at the same time it’s not necessarily surprising,” said Dan Hull, director of Career and Technical Education at the Alabama State Department of Education, speaking to reporters during the briefing Monday.

Population growth and school enrollment have continued to drop in the Black Belt region in recent decades, Hull said, but he stressed the importance of broadening awareness among school children of the opportunities that exist for them.

“One of the sayings that we have in K-12 is kids, it’s just really hard for them to be what they can’t see, so we want to provide more opportunities for students to really just understand what’s available and what’s out there,” Hull said.

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Hull said officials wants to expand and further develop the workplace learning concept, where students spend half a school day working at a job, and they want to reach down into middle and elementary schools to help those younger children become aware earlier of what opportunities await them.

Jinping Sun,  assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama, said during the briefing that what stood out to her after reviewing the report was the need to develop high quality leadership in Black Belt schools.

Data shows that school achievement has a clear and direct impact on future employment, Sun said, and it also shows that increasing quality leadership among school principals has a clear impact on student testing scores.

“If we could focus on the development of school leaders, and district leaders, and then in one or two years, our scores would rise by 20 percent to 15 percent,” Sun said. “We would surpass a lot of states.”

Donny Jones, vice president of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce and executive director of West Alabama Works, said now is the time to make systemic changes in the Black Belt.

“If we ever had a perfect moment to really come together and make transitional changes in our education system, in our workforce system and the modeling that we actually do, I think now’s the time,” Jones said.

Jones said they’re now in the second year of the Educator Workforce Academy, which is a yearlong program for West Alabama teachers that trains them on workforce development.

“What we’re finding out is many of our educators have said to us, we had no idea that these opportunities are in our own community for young people, and didn’t really understand what they could do to support the workforce and also the opportunities for their children,” Jones said.

Young people are graduating school and leaving the Black Belt for jobs elsewhere, Jones said, which makes programs like the Educator Workforce Academy so important. There are companies in the Black Belt who need workers but are finding them from outside those areas, while young people are leaving for jobs elsewhere, he said, adding that there needs to be a comprehensive plan.

“We need to take these comprehensive plans that we have been talking about for years, and actually putting them into actionable programs that actually can make a systemic change,” Jones said. “And it’s got to go all the way down to Pre-K, from Pre-K all the way up to PhD. we’ve got to create those education programs, but also pipelining all of the workforce programs that we have into actual jobs.”

Asked by APR whether anyone is actively working on such a comprehensive plan for the Black Belt, or whom that person or group might be, if not, it was unclear Monday.

Stephen Katsinas, director of the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center, said it’s critical that we first define exactly what is the Black Belt so that it can be measured. Over the years, various counties have been added, then taken away, from the generally used makeup of Black Belt counties.

“The fact that we don’t even have a definition of the Black Belt says a lot about the commitment that we’ve made to it,” Katsinas said.

Last week the Education Policy Center released its report titled “Persistent Unemployment in the Black Belt.” Visit the center’s website here to learn more about past reports.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Economy

Alabama unemployment rate drops more than 2 points to 5.6 percent

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 5.6 percent in August, down from 7.9 percent in July, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

The figure represents 127,186 unemployed people, compared to 176,556 in July. It compares to an August 2019 rate of 2.8 percent, or 62,149 unemployed people.

“August showed a larger drop in the unemployment rate than we’ve seen for a few months,” said Alabama Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington. “We are continuing to see our initial claims drop, staying under 10,000 for the past several weeks. We regained another 22,200 jobs this month but are still down more than 86,000 from this time last year.”

Washington said that the number of people who are working or actively looking for work is at its highest level ever, which he described as a sign that people are confident that there are jobs to be found. 

Gov. Kay Ivey said the numbers are good news for Alabama. 

“We have worked extremely hard to open Alabama’s businesses safely, and to put our hard-working families back to work,” Ivey said in a statement. “We know that challenges remain, and we will endeavor to meet them so that we can get back to our previous, pre-pandemic record-setting employment numbers.”

All the state’s counties and metro areas experienced a decrease in unemployment rates from July to August. The most gains were seen in the government sector, the professional and business services sector and the trade, transportation and utilities sector.

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Counties with the lowest unemployment rates were:

  • Clay County – 3.4 percent
  • Randolph, Franklin, Marshall, Cullman, Cleburne and Cherokee Counties – 3.6 percent
  • Blount County – 3.7 percent

Counties with the highest unemployment rates were:

  • Wilcox County – 14.8 percent
  • Lowndes County – 13.8 percent
  • Greene County – 10.9 percent

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are:

  • Vestavia Hills – 3 percent
  • Homewood  – 3.2 percent
  • Madison – 3.3 percent

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are:

  • Prichard – 15.4 percent
  • Selma – 12.9 percent
  • Bessemer – 10.7 percent

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Economy

New unemployment claims drop slightly

Micah Danney

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There were 8,848 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, slightly fewer than the 8,902 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

Of the claims filed between Sept. 6 and Sept. 12, 4,485, or 51 percent, were related to COVID-19. That’s the same percentage as the previous week.

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Economy

Inaugural Alabama Works innovator awards presented

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(VIA ALABAMA WORKS)

The inaugural AlabamaWorks! Innovator Awards were presented by Gov. Kay Ivey and Deputy Director of Commerce and AIDT Director Ed Castile Thursday during the AlabamaWorks! Virtual Conference.

The awards were developed to highlight people and programs across the state that take an innovative approach to solving workforce challenges and help advance Ivey’s Success Plus attainment goal of adding 500,000 highly skilled workers by 2025.

At the time of the inception of the awards, Alabama was unaware of the impact COVID-19 would have on the workforce and although the attainment goal has not changed, our economic and workforce recovery post-COVID-19 will hinge on innovators like those recognized.

“The workforce challenges that we face today are not the same ones that we faced six months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has completely reshaped the workforce landscape,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “The State of Alabama is relying on those who are leading the charge by implementing innovative solutions in their cities, counties and regions to further economic and workforce development.”

The recipients are visionaries, outside-of-the-box thinkers and problem solvers. The programs test boundaries, explore new opportunities and reach deeper to bring about change. “It is important to recognize these leaders of innovation and to thank them for their hard work and dedication to the citizens, communities and industries of Alabama,” said Ed Castile, deputy director of commerce and AIDT director. “Their innovative approach to workforce development will be key to opening doors, breaking barriers and propelling Alabamians forward.”

The recipients of the first-ever AlabamaWorks Innovator Awards are as follows:

Region 1 – North AlabamaWorks – Beth Brumley, Colbert County Schools

Beth Brumley built the Health Science Program for Colbert County Schools from the ground up by using her experience in the healthcare field to provide critical, real-world skills to her students. She developed key relationships within the healthcare community to provide her students enhanced learning opportunities and exposure, which resulted in increased demand for program graduates. Beth was also named the 2020 National New Teacher of the Year through the Association for Career and Technical Education. By bridging the gap between education and employer, Beth has created a formula for success that positively impacts the workforce.

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Region 2 – East AlabamaWorks – The Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement (SAFE)

SAFE has been a model for supportive services to empower individuals and families while fostering positive and healthy development of the community for nearly 25 years. In their program, SAFE combines occupational and employability skills to help job seekers be ready to enter the workforce regardless of barriers they may have faced in the past. Their dedication to providing practical solutions to modern problems is a testament to their heart for service and passion for helping their community and region.

Region 3 – West AlabamaWorks – Dr. Mike Daria, Superintendent Tuscaloosa City Schools

Dr. Daria has played a crucial role in the success of West Alabama’s workforce development by fostering important relationships between industry and education. His leadership has focused on increased Career Technical Education (CTE) enrollment, supporting local Worlds of Work events and the Educator Workforce Academy. Dr. Daria’s emphasis on the importance of identifying career pathways for the students in his district and then providing viable opportunities for students to take those paths, make him invaluable to West Alabama.

Region 4 – Central Six AlabamaWorks – Ed Farm

Ed Farm is the signature program of TechAlabama that focuses on encouraging children and adults to discover and pursue STEM careers. Ed Farm has a vision for a world full of invention, led by citizens who have been equipped with the necessary tools to fill or create the careers of the future. Through equipping educators and communities with innovative tools, strategies and programs they are able to support active learning for all students. With three signature tracks, Ed Farm is poised to help increase educational equity and improve learning outcomes through technology all while preparing the future tech workforce.

Region 5 – Central AlabamaWorks – Tiger Mochas, Auburn City Schools

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Tiger Mochas is a collaborative effort between special education students, FCCLA (Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America) members and peer volunteers at Auburn High School. This student-led organization is serving up a lot more than hot cups of coffee to their peers because through their work, students are provided meaningful, hands-on work experience that teaches important functional, social and daily living skills. Graduates of the program leave with not only work and employability skills, but in-demand soft skills that will help them succeed in life and work.

Region 6 – Southeast AlabamaWorks – WeeCat Industries

WeeCat Industries uses a simulated workplace model to meet the growing demand for a skilled workforce. WeeCat saw an opportunity to begin teaching work ethics and employability skills as early as preschool, and rose to the challenge. Their students clock into work, run an assembly line, fill orders, check invoices, meet production quota, interview for new positions and implement quality control all while earning a “paycheck” to be spent at the WeeCat Store before they can even spell the word “school”. WeeCat Industries places invaluable skills at a crucial age in development which will shape the future of the workforce.

Region 7 – SAWDC AlabamaWorks – Ed Bushaw

Ed Bushaw with the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce researched and developed initiatives to address the region’s workforce supply to meet the needs of the growing hospitality and tourism industry in his region. His collaborative efforts with business and industry officials resulted in the development of the first Hospitality and Tourism registered apprenticeship program in Alabama. Apprentices receive classroom instruction as well as valuable real-world experience within the hospitality and tourism industry and finish the program with a credential that can be used to advance their career. Ed’s ability to adapt to the needs of industry and implement programs that address those needs are vital to the continued success of southwest Alabama.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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