School officials address local industry needs for skilled workers

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(Photo from wscc.edu)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Bright and early Friday morning, representatives from more than 20 local industries met with educational leaders to discuss ways of bringing new workers into the workforce. Led by Dale Greer, director of the Cullman Economic Development Agency, the meeting featured speakers from the Cullman Area Technology Academy, Cullman City Schools and Wallace State Community College. 

To kick off the meeting, Greer stated that the original purpose of the event was because over half of the industries represented had called his office to address the lack of workers going into their professions. As a short-term solution to alleviate the issue, local representatives from schools would speak about the programs and initiatives that students can undergo that would prepare them for working in different industries, and the skills they learn that can be beneficial to local businesses.  

Billy Troutman, principal of the CATA, spoke about his school’s program first, saying that his goal is to impact students at some point in their academic careers to prepare them for the workforce. “Some of these students are gonna graduate high school and be ready to work,” he said. “Some of them will go off to college, some will stay in school for 20+ years and get degrees beyond what we can list, but guess what? At some point, everyone’s gonna have to find a job.” As he spoke, he described the various programs that students at CATA can enroll in, saying that each industry represented at the meeting should be able to find at least one program that gave students the necessary skills to enter their fields. He also spoke on the features of CATA’s new website, including a section called CATA Works – Business and Industry Info where local businesses, companies and industries can advertise job openings available to high school students in certain fields.  

Troutman also addressed the fact that many larger companies and corporations have strict guidelines regarding student workers, but said that any companies who are able to take workers younger than 18 should consider doing so. “You’ll get the support from the school, we can make sure you get matched with a student who meets your skill set needs,” he stated. He then discussed the risks with investing time and resources into hiring full-time workers straight out of high school or college without getting to know them first, saying that many may end up not working out within a few months. “But if you start a couple years earlier, especially if that kid’s a junior or senior in high school, there’s only a little bit of investment if it’s a part-time situation,” he continued. “There might even be some opportunity for reimbursement from the Alabama Office of Apprenticeships, or if nothing else then, a write-off on some taxes, but now there’s only a little bit of investment and you get to see whether or not that kid is a good fit before you really put your heart and soul into it.” 

Following Troutman was Mike Donaldson, Career Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator for Cullman City Schools, who discussed some statistics regarding students in Cullman High School’s career tech courses. One key number he mentioned was the statewide workforce participation rate, or the percentage of non-institutionalized people of working age who are currently employed or are actively seeking employment. For Alabama, he said that number was at 54%, meaning almost half of non-institutionalized people of working age in the state are not employed and not seeking employment. This low participation rate results in companies and industries not having enough skilled workers applying for positions. 

Donaldson then brought up CHS’s numbers: 64% of students at CHS were enrolled in a career tech course, and in 2020, the school saw a 93% positive placement rate. “Positive placement means that when we check in on the students after we graduate, they have either been accepted to college or they are working in the same field that their career tech courses prepared them for,” he explained. “Of the 7% who were not in positive placement, a majority of those students were still employedthey were just working in fields other than the career tech courses they studied.”  

Another point Donaldson brought up was the importance of students being credentialed before entering the workforce, which CHS offers through its work-based learning programs. “I’m really excited about the Ready to Work program. The goal is to credential students who are going through a career technical program with an industry-approved credential,” he explained. “For a science program, it may be Certified Medical Assistant. That’s a desired industry credential. In a business program, it might be a Microsoft Office certification, which is a desirable industry credential. This program, we hope, is going to give you guys some exposure to these students, as well as teaching them the employability skills that they need.” 

After Donaldson came Suzanne Harbin, assistant to the president for Advancement at Wallace State Community College. In her speech, she stated that her hope for WSCC and the industry professionals sitting in the room was to build a “talent pipeline” that would sustain Cullman businesses long-term. She also encouraged the representatives to consider hiring options outside of traditional high school and college graduates. “Maybe consider hiring an Adult Ed student who’s looking for a skill upgrade, or someone who might have a high school diploma or a degree but has been out of the workforce for a long time because they’ve been a stay-at-home parent. These people can give you the work you need, they just need to be given a chance.” 

Jamie Blackmon, job placement coordinator at WSCC, spoke next about some of the services offered by WSCC and its career advancement department. One such service aims to get younger children interested in industry and manufacturing by visiting local companies and filming a “How It’s Made” type of video about the products they make, then uploading it to the Center for Career and Workforce Development YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMKPeiN13-mHjv_yf7gT1Cg). She also said that her department aims to show students early on what it means to be a good worker, including stressing the importance of punctuality and attendance. Additionally, industries can make use of WSCC’s resources by sending employees there for customized training to gain new skill sets that help advance employee careers. 

Blackmon also stated that a new online platform will be launching at WSCC to help employers connect with possible student employees: Handshake. Many universities, such as Auburn University, use Handshake to show job listings in various fields and let students take the reigns on their employment options. The platform lets companies post job and internship listings and a summary of what the company does, while students are able to filter the posts by type (job vs internship), field and even distance. The student’s profile contains a resume that they upload and the most current unofficial transcript from the school. Many job listings use these two documents to allow students to apply for jobs with a single click. WSCC will be doing a “soft launch” of the platform over the summer, and orientation will include an activity where students fill out their Handshake profiles. “All of our students, every single one of them, that will be a part of what they have to do in orientation. It’ll be mandatory for them to fill out the whole process and add their resume,” she stated. 

As a final note, Blackmon expressed her passion for helping recovering addicts get the career building resources that they need. “I don’t know how to not believe in somebody! I believe in second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth chances. That’s just a part of their journey, and I don’t want to discount those people because we never know their circumstances,” she said. “When we first meet, I never look them up. I don’t care what they’ve done in the pastwe start our relationship that day and we talk about how we can get them to that next step where they’re not in this repetitive cycle of coming in, going to jail, being referred to rehab. We come up with a tangible plan to make sure they can be successful, and I think you all could be a part of that plan. If they don’t have a job or something to help provide for themselves or their families while they’re in sober living and after they leave, it’s so easy for them to fall back into what they were doing before.” Blackmon finished by saying that her biggest goal was to get a sober living dorm across the street from the campus to help victims of the opioid crisis who may be trying to better themselves with education and career preparation. 

The final educational representatives to speak were Jennifer Lambert with WSCC’s Adult Education Program and WSCC Job Developer Christina Holmes. Lambert described some of the services that the Adult Ed program provides, such as OSHA 10 Certification courses, ESL classes for those learning English and additional classes for those with high school diplomas who may still struggle with math and reading comprehension. She said that companies need only get in touch with WSCC to get some classes or certification courses set up for their employees. Holmes then came up to discuss the benefits of registered apprenticeships, for which the college has some grants to help pay for the apprentice’s books and supplies, as well as some of their wages in some cases, and also bring attention to a non-registered apprenticeship program that aims to prepare students to become Advanced Manufacturing Technicians.  

The meeting concluded with a Q&A session where the industry representatives got to ask CEDA members and educational representatives about the different short-term solutions to the lack of workers. The full video of the meeting can be seen on The Cullman Tribune’s Facebook page. 

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Heather Mann

heather@cullmantribune.com