Industry looks to local schools

Published 8:53 pm Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Many of Dallas County’s major manufacturing businesses are looking for their next employees in local high schools.

With the school year drawing to a close, a group of human resource managers — from International Paper, Bush Hog and other local companies — is nearing the end of its efforts to teach students skills that can directly translate to the manufacturing industry.

Economic development director Wayne Vardaman helped jump-start the group to address unfilled local industry positions.

Email newsletter signup

“There are industries in our area that are wanting to hire, but the problem is that they need people who have the right skills,” Vardaman said.

The group’s efforts have largely focused on Selma High School, according to Connie Messer, who leads the group.

“If students are willing to learn, then there are jobs out there,” Messer said. “The companies are looking to fill positions, but we also want to make sure that students have a job after graduation, instead of struggling to make ends meet.”

The group, named Selma HR Professionals, organized in August 2013. Each month the group’s members teach seven to nine classes, addressing simple topics, such as how to fill out a resume, and more in-depth issues related to manufacturing. Messer said an engineer or other employee often joins HR managers to help describe more complicated topics.

A similar group existed 15 years ago, according to Messer, but a recent increase in the number of available jobs and lack of qualified applicants provoked it’s revitalization.

“We started discussing the issues we were seeing, and the main issue that came up was job readiness and a skilled workforce,” she said. “Most importantly we were concerned with securing a skilled workforce from this area.”

During discussions, Messer said she learned that International Paper’s Riverdale mill was looking to hire more than 200 employees in two to three years.

“We felt like a majority of the students were being taught that they needed a four-year degree and a professional job, instead of a blue-collar, skilled, technical position,” she said. “Then we found out that a lot of the industries were struggling to fill those technical positions.”

The HR group’s findings is evidence of a larger problem in Alabama and the nation, according to Bill Taylor, the head of The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

Taylor, the former head of Mercedes-Benz of Alabama, said schools and businesses are not optimally aligned to provide knowledge necessary for an immediate transition to the professional world. Taylor said high schools and colleges should focus on building careers for students instead of simply securing a job.

“From the business side and across the nation, education and industry need to communicate better and more frequently,” he said. “In our state, we have many pockets of excellence and connecting those is an interesting challenge.”

Industry requests haven’t fallen on deaf ears. Acting Selma superintendent Larry DiChiara said the system’s career technical institute is an important aspect of education. In fact, one of his first priorities as superintendent was securing grant funding for the technical program..

“For too long school systems have been trying to pidgeonhole students into the four-year college degree track, but some students are better with technical skills,” DiChiara said.

Messer said she isn’t aware of any hiring decisions from her group’s efforts, but said, as the program expands, she hopes industrial talent can be homegrown.

“Local people are more apt to stay, whereas people from outside of the Selma area are more likely to take another, closer opportunity when it becomes available,” she said.