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State must reinvent itself

DEMOPOLIS — For students in the Black Belt who go on to pursue four-year degrees, the sky is the limit. However, those left behind sometimes feel like the sky is falling.

During Thursday’s presentation at the Demopolis Civic Center by representatives of the Alabama Economic Development Alliance through the Accelerate Alabama Plan, discussed solutions to some of the state and Black Belt region’s growing workforce problems. A recurring issue among those asking questions was the lack of skilled labor in the region.

Tracy Sharpe, a representative of Boyette Strategic Advisors of Atlanta, stressed the need for technology-based economic development. Through research, Sharpe said the program hopes to secure industry for all areas of Alabama.

“We are going to make sure there is something in it for everyone,” she said. “We are going to have an implementation plan. We don’t plan for this to sit on the shelf.”

Those in attendance agreed tax incentives are a key to attracting industry. However, they also stressed the importance of a qualified workforce.

Demopolis native Larry Lee said current educational programs simply aren’t working.

“We need to redesign educational programs to meet our current needs,” he said. “We need to think outside the box.”

Region 6 Workforce Development Councilmember Chuck Smith, who represents Dallas, Marengo, Perry, Sumter and Wilcox counties, said there are plenty of workers in the area. However, Smith said, those workers need programs to prepare them for today’s demands.

“There are 6,000 available workers in this area, but there are few training facilities for the workforce that needs to be trained,” Smith said. “There needs to be some restructuring. Alabama has to reinvent itself to help local rural communities or it is going to continue to decline.”

Programs, Smith said, will help with recruitment of industry as well as retention of existing industry.

Effective programs, Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day said, would target specific occupations. Welders, pipe fitters and jobs within the automotive industry are growing in Alabama. To secure factories, he said the Black Belt must prove it has the people to perform the jobs.

“I think, in a nutshell, what we need is a process for industrial improvement prep programs or an employment prep program where we are actually assessing needs and bringing in programs,” Day said. “We’re looking at skill sets and what programs can we get. Instead of using a shotgun approach we are using a rifle approach to see what is best for our workforce.”

Day referenced a program called School to Work through Mercedes that works with Birmingham-area students to prepare them for a career in the automotive industry.

The most important aspect of economic development, Smith said, is taking a realistic approach.

“Everyone is not going to a four-year institution,” Smith said. “There is a workforce out there that is part of the education system that could benefit from the original vision of the trade school in Alabama. It can provide them with the skills they need to improve their quality of life and support a family.”

The Alabama Economic Development Alliance was created in July 2011 by executive order of Gov. Robert Bentley.

The group’s purpose is to bring various agencies and organizations together that are currently involved in economic development activities in the state.

Plans include identification of targeted business sectors, along with strategic recommendations designed to position Alabama for economic development success based on its key assets.

The Alliance and Boyette Strategic Advisors, through the Accelerate Alabama initiative, have scheduled public meetings, such as the one Thursday in Demopolis, for many areas around the state in the coming weeks.

Many of the economic development team in Dallas County plan to attend the meeting in Montgomery on Sept. 27.

For more on the Accelerate Alabama program, log on to www.acceleratealabama.com.
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