In crafting what he calls a “supercharged” workforce development program, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin drew from his own early experience in the workforce as well as input from some of his city’s largest job creators.
Woodfin sat down recently with Yellowhammer News to outline his city’s innovative approach to workforce development through its Birmingham Promise – an apprenticeship and scholarship program made possible by a public-private partnership with area employers.
Having been part of a program where he left class early to attend a job in his junior and senior years of high school, Woodfin learned invaluable lessons as part of that work experience.
“I tell people I am able to be mayor because at my first job at a grocery store I got trained in soft skills and never looked back,” he said.
And feedback from employers has helped shape the direction of the program.
“As mayor, I’m afforded the opportunity to talk to CEOs all the time in various sectors,” Woodfin explained. “They talk about their workforce gaps. We also talk about how do we recruit industry to the city and expand and grow jobs. You do that by investing in your youngest generation and investing in your workforce. This is a full down payment on investing in our workforce.”
With September designated as National Workforce Development month, numerous ongoing campaigns have developed to highlight the scope of Alabama’s workforce development demands.
Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, visited Tanner, Alabama, Tuesday to support an apprenticeship program conducted through the National Association of Manufacturing.
Woodfin leads a city facing a welcome shift in the focus of its economy. He believes Birmingham Promise will meet those needs under what he calls “a very sustainable model.”
It is a model that will be tested by changing workforce needs.
The challenges of a new economy
Josh Carpenter, director of economic development for Birmingham, described to Yellowhammer News the fact that the city’s workforce needs have altered as a result of a shift to a knowledge-based economy.
Carpenter pointed to the online delivery service Shipt, which employs more than 1,000 people in Birmingham, to show that the skills for a digital-based company are far different than those emphasized in more traditional career training. He said a whole new group of innovators have made Birmingham their home and in doing so present more workforce challenges.
Woodfin called workforce development a “high priority” for his administration and envisions Birmingham Promise as the primary initiative for meeting those challenges.
Students in their junior and senior years will have access to apprenticeships in industry clusters which include business and finance, energy and engineering, healthcare and life sciences and information technology.
Birmingham school system graduates will have access to support for full-time apprenticeships or last-dollar funding at two-year and four-year public colleges in Alabama. Last-dollar funding means the program supplements any tuition balance after scholarships and grants from other sources have been paid out to the enrollee.
To be eligible for the scholarship program, students must live in Birmingham and have graduated from a Birmingham public school. Scholarship funds are awarded proportionally to the student’s time in the school system in order to maintain fairness and prevent misuse of the program.
The Birmingham Promise was one of nine programs to receive a grant from the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA). Funders for PAYA include Ballmer Group, Bloomberg Philanthropies and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.
Promise partners in Birmingham and the surrounding region include large employers in healthcare, energy, construction, banking, manufacturing and insurance.
Funding from these partners will largely sustain the program.
‘Birmingham’s competitive advantage’
One such partner is Lee Styslinger III, chairman and CEO of Altec, Inc. Styslinger has served on President Donald Trump’s commission on American manufacturing. He is also part of an ongoing national effort to ensure workers acquire the necessary skills in a rapidly changing economy.
Styslinger views an increased emphasis on workforce development as essential to growth.
“The Birmingham Promise represents a transformational investment in the future of our region’s workforce,” he told Yellowhammer News. “In a knowledge-based economy, a skilled workforce will become Birmingham’s competitive advantage and change the area’s economic trajectory. Altec was pleased to help champion the apprenticeship program this summer, and we view the Birmingham Promise as an investment in the future of our company.”
Under the apprenticeship program in which Styslinger’s company participated, students receive $7.50 per hour from their employer and an additional $7.50 per hour from the city of Birmingham.
Woodfin says that workforce measurements are put in place “to make sure people are not just going to a job sitting in front of a computer and to make sure people are gaining exposure and matriculating through an actual apprenticeship program.”
He added that any child who wants to participate in the apprenticeship program will be allowed to and completion will result in the achievement of a certain amount of credit hours.
Woodfin aims to have between 150 and 300 students slotted for apprenticeships during the first year. He estimates the annual cost at $2 million per year once the program is up and running at full potential.
Program funding is administered through the United Way and a website is set up to collect private contributions.
“We believe this is a small down payment on investing in not only our youngest generation but our workforce,” Woodfin explained. “When you think about these major clusters that drive Birmingham’s economy, we have to say what are we prepared to do and what are we willing to do to make sure we are intentional about closing these workforce gaps, training the workforce.”
The mayor identifies communication between the partners as vital to the program.
“It is important for the city to remain aware of the private sector’s workforce gaps,” Woodfin said.
He explained that the program creates a workforce that can immediately go into action out of high school because it has been exposed for at least two years to the culture and climate of specific companies.
“It’s the ability for them to understand what responsibility means and work ethic and being on time and all these things,” Woodfin said. “It’s very important.”
And for those who choose to pursue a degree beyond high school, the previous exposure may lead to opportunities for that graduate.
Woodfin often uses the acronym “CPA” to illustrate his viewpoint on workforce. He describes it as “Creating” jobs, “Preparing” people and ensuring “Access” to those jobs.
“The Birmingham Promise hinges on the ‘P,'” he outlined. “The business community is responsible for creating the jobs, but I believe the city of Birmingham and the school system, in partnership, is responsible for preparing people for those jobs. Hence, the Birmingham Promise.”
“Corporate Birmingham has a bottom line as it relates to the gaps in its workforce,” he continued. “We’re saying partner with us to close those gaps. It works for the small business owner, it works for the entrepreneur, it works for a corporation because they have gaps, and this is a way long-term and short-term to close those gaps.”
A pilot program for all of Alabama
With Alabama ramping up its own workforce development efforts at the state government level, Carpenter thinks collaboration between Birmingham and state leaders is the natural next step.
“There are a lot of ways we think the policy considerations at the state level can be tested out here in the city of Birmingham, so we’re going to be pretty aggressive about making those connections,” mentioned Carpenter. “Having an office of apprenticeships with clear goals, our interests are tightly aligned with theirs. We want to be a pilot for them. We want to be a city that statewide people are looking at for apprenticeships and development of workers.”
He sees the partnerships the state has formed with the private sector as a model for Birmingham.
“I think what they’ve done is remarkable to encourage companies to be a part of it,” added Carpenter.
As with most ambitious programs, evidence of success for Birmingham Promise will take a couple of different forms, according to Carpenter.
“Our immediate goal is we want to connect 2,000 young workers to jobs in five years,” he outlined. “That’s the immediate goal. If we do that, we will be successful.”
There is another way, however, that Carpenter aspires to qualify success.
“When people around the country look up and say, ‘That city is serious about its talent workforce development,’” he will know the program is succeeding.
He recalled a recent conversation with a company in Silicon Valley contemplating expansion at a new location. Carpenter told them, “Birmingham has to be the place that you can grow.”
The conversation turned to what Birmingham has to offer — now and in the future.
“We talked about the type of talent they could find here and the way that they can grow,” Carpenter continued. “If we are very serious about investing in talent and people see that, I think it’s going to change the way Birmingham’s economy is developed. We have two goals there. One is to make sure companies really feel like Birmingham is the place they can grow and expand their business. And the other goal is obviously to make sure young people in our community feel like being a part of our community is getting a quality job and they find a sure pathway to that quality job.”
‘Not failure but low aim is sin’
Motivating Woodfin in his quest to improve Birmingham’s economy and communities through workforce development is a quote from civil rights icon Benjamin E. Mays, who said, “Not failure but low aim is sin.”
Woodfin’s commitment to the program is unwavering.
“This is bold but it needs to be done,” he concluded. “We’re going to meet the mark because our youngest generation is depending on us to meet the mark.”
Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer News