Alabama is seeing record job growth and record-low unemployment, with over 2.1 million people now employed, the highest in state history. However, a recent issue brief from the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center has brought attention to the workforce disparity in Alabama’s Black Belt region, urging for an expansion in workforce development in the area.
While the state revels in historic job numbers, Governor Kay Ivey highlighted that nearly 50,000 Alabamians have stopped looking for jobs altogether, placing Alabama near the bottom nationally in terms of labor force participation.
The report detailed the Prime Age Employment Gap (PAEG), which focuses on the employment statistics of those aged between 25 to 54. This age range is considered most likely to be working, as younger individuals are often still in school, and those older are preparing for retirement. Alarmingly, the Black Belt counties such as Perry, Wilcox, and Barbour have shown the highest PAEG gaps compared to national figures.
Donny Jones, the Chief Workforce Officer of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, underscored the particular challenges faced in the Black Belt. Factors such as high single-parent households and incarcerated individuals significantly affect labor force participation. The region also grapples with challenges like lack of affordable childcare and medical benefits for working families, further discouraging job-seeking activities.
Governor Ivey’s Rebuild Alabama project aims to connect the isolated Black Belt with a new four-lane highway, a project initially proposed 75 years ago but overlooked by previous administrations. This initiative could serve as a critical infrastructure boost to the region, potentially invigorating economic growth and workforce participation.
Furthermore, the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center has launched the DRIVE Coalition initiative. This ambitious project seeks to foster collaboration among business, government, and local stakeholders for cohesive, long-term planning. This initiative has also piqued the interest of the renowned Brookings Institution.
In conclusion, while Alabama celebrates its workforce milestones, there’s a pressing need to address the disparities in the Black Belt region. With the right policies, investments, and collaborations, the state has the potential to uplift all its residents and truly thrive.