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Education Attainment Division

Preparing Tomorrow's Talent in Birmingham

Jessie Azrilian on Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 12:00:00 pm

Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) is focused on building a pipeline of students who participate in career themed high school academies and career-tech programs, pursue post-secondary credentials and/or degrees and fill available jobs in the region’s targeted industries.  BBA received a 2014-15 Lumina Education Attainment Award to build upon this effort. The BBA is working to develop a web presence and marketing campaign for its newly launched Talent Recruitment Project, a program that hosts sector themed events to connect the workforce opportunities of Birmingham’s employers to college students as they near graduation. 

BBA’s VP of Workforce Development, Waymond Jackson, provided an interview to discuss BBA’s talent recruitment and development portfolio, from cradle-to-career. 

Q: What led BBA to focus on education attainment and workforce development?

Jackson:
 The demand from area companies to have a skilled and educated workforce led the BBA and its leaders to focus on education attainment and workforce development. In 2009, the Birmingham Business Alliance was formed through a merger of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and our regional economic development organization, the Metropolitan Development Board. Shortly after the BBA was formed, Market Street Service led the strategic planning process for our organization. Out of that research grew our strategic plan, Blueprint Birmingham. Blueprint was built upon four pillars: economic prosperity, education and workforce development, community and regional stewardship, and public and private leadership. Now, in the fifth year of that plan we are truly seeing the importance of having a sustained focus on preparing students at all levels of the education pipeline to be skilled and ready as they enter college and/or the workforce. 

Q: How do you explain the growth in your education/workforce development pillar?

Jackson: Now more than ever, it is easier for organizations like the BBA to justify our high prioritization of education and workforce development. Current information in Alabama suggests that 50% of our current workforce could retire today.  With such a large percentage of the current workforce at retirement age, it is very important that future workers are prepared to immediately step in and fill those positions or those yet to be created positions. As economic developers and site selectors continue to hear from expanding or relocating companies that access to talent is a critical component of economic development projects, organizations that are involved in the type of work we do will continue to have a role to play in the process; including working with educators at all levels to make sure they are informed of the latest industry trends and required skills of future workers. Overall, we want to make sure that the companies that invest in the BBA and in our region are able to find the high skilled talent they need. 

Q: Tell me about your chamber's comprehensive education/workforce development portfolio.

Jackson: We have active initiatives in four big areas to meet the goals and objectives of Blueprint Birmingham.

Improve Pre-k-12th Grade Education: When creating PreK-12 programs we look at whether students are getting the type of education that will allow them to graduate from high school and be ready to either take a job in our region or enter one of our local colleges. Once they enter college, we look at whether the classes and programs offered support the types of jobs available locally. 

Implementing Innovative Programs in Under-performing Schools: We are helping to establish career academies throughout the Birmingham City School System. Each high school now has a career-themed academy placed within the school into which students can self-select. These academies align with industry jobs growing in the Birmingham region. Academy themes include engineering, construction and architecture, health sciences, culinary arts, finance, and an urban teacher’s academy. We are also implementing a technology academy. All of the academies are aligned with the National Academy Foundation (NAF) which works very closely with Nashville City Schools (a model we looked at when creating the career academies). We provide industry data to Birmingham City Schools which informs them of available jobs in local industries, and the training and/or education needed to move into those jobs.  

Increasing Access to Pre-K: We are advocates for expansion of the state of Alabama’s First Class Pre-K. The state of Alabama has one of the highest ranked Pre-K programs in the country, and we are one of only 5 states to receive a designation from the National Institute for Early Education Research - meeting all 10 of the Institute’s benchmarks for quality. However, as of 2012, only 4% of 4-year olds had access to the program.  Since we began advocating, along with a host of other organizations who are truly leading the charge, access to Pre-K has risen from 4% to 12% statewide and funding from $19.1 million to $38.5 million.  Most of the data and information on Pre-K says that it works; for that reason, expanding access to high quality Pre-K has been a priority of not only our organization, but of our regional and state leaders as well. 

Encourage Two and Four Year Degree Programs that Support Regional Industry Sectors: ACCE’s Lumina Education Attainment Award has allowed us to expand the talent retention and attraction objectives in our Blueprint. This entails working with businesses and local colleges/universities to: 1) understand what gaps companies have in positions that require two or four year degrees, especially for entry level jobs; 2) establish innovative programs that makes college students aware of the type of jobs in the Birmingham region; and 3) provide students with facilitated meetings, interviews and hiring opportunities with hiring managers and recruiters through our Talent Recruitment Project. 

Q: How does your chamber measure success?

Jackson: We benchmark success across several areas of the cradle-to-career spectrum: 

Talent Recruitment: We are starting to look at census data as a way to track talent progress. For example, over the past three years, the Birmingham region has seen a 48% increase in workers between the ages of 25-34 with a bachelor’s degree. This is a measurement we can look at and use to support our ongoing image enhancement efforts that support talent recruitment.  

Talent Retention: We also measure how many people are coming here, what companies they are working for, and if we are retaining them. We have a retention program, OnBoard Birmingham, which targets early-career employees who possess a four-year degree and are working with regional companies in our in-demand industry sectors. The program exposes them to the community, peers in different industries, mentors, service, and leadership opportunities.  As we continue to see a rise in our four-year degree population of 25 – 34 year olds we want to make sure that we are creating an environment that encourages them to grow and stay. 

High School Graduation & Dropout Rates: One of the intended outcomes of the career academies and hands-on innovative learning programs in our secondary schools is to reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates. We want students to take a more hands-on approach to learning and create an environment where they actually want to come to school, learn, and know that what they are learning directly applies to the next step of their life – being college and/or career-ready.  

Kindergarten Readiness: Right now the main measurement for Pre-K students is access. We are starting to shift to measuring the percentage of students who have access to Pre-K that are considered “ready” when they enter kindergarten.

Career-Ready: Industry credentialing, work keys assessment, and lower college remediation rates are all things we look at to determine career readiness.  Also, tracking the number of two and four year college graduates with degrees that are applicable to our target industry sectors is very important.  

Q: How are your education/workforce development initiatives funded?

Jackson: We are funded through the investments and dues of our investors. Our workforce programs are included within the overall budget of the organization. We also go after foundation funding–local and national-specifically targeted toward education and workforce outcomes. 

ACCE’s Lumina Education Attainment Award is the first national grant we have received. But these grants are to support very specific programs, not for our organizational capacity. 

Q: What best practices and/or lessons learned can you share with other chamber professionals working on education reform?

Jackson: Following best practices is a best practice! Research existing models, and put your own spin on it. Truly, that is one of the things that has helped me be successful. If you look through our Blueprint Birmingham Strategic Plan, it is littered with examples of programs from other areas. Our original version has the career academy model from Nashville and parent university model from Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

As far as lessons learned, remember to be patient and build relationships. Working to change education systems that have been in place for a long time doesn’t happen overnight. I really think school districts sometimes think that the business community’s efforts will be short-lived when it comes to engagement. That is sometimes why you get resistance in changing programs and processes within schools. But being persistent and consistent helps a lot.

In order to get the type of reform that the business community is looking for, you have to play in the arena. You need to be engaged with your local school board. You need to build relationships with your teachers and superintendents and allow them to have input.  But, most importantly, you have to clearly know the needs of industry and be able to communicate that to your education partners and community stakeholders.  

ACCE has embraced Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025, a national effort to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025. Working in partnership with Lumina, ACCE’s Education Attainment Division launched a competitive awards program, providing chambers of commerce a $40,000 award to advance defined regional education attainment goals. In 2014, seven chambers of commerce received awards for setting ambitious workforce development agendas and showing momentum in achieving their community-specific goals.

The 2015-16 Lumina Education Attainment Awards application will launch April 27. 

Tags: EAD, Economic Development, education, Goal 2025, higher education, Lumina, postsecondary

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