By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama leaders say 45% of the state’s workforce now has an educational certificate or degree beyond high school, representing progress in the goal of adding 500,000 newly credentialed people to the workforce by 2025 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ed Castile, deputy secretary of the Workforce Development Division in the Alabama Department of Commerce, told Alabama Daily News the pandemic has even helped in some respects in reaching the half million goal.
“Oddly enough, it hurt us, but then it helped us,” Castile said. “The sad news is a lot of people lost their jobs, but that helped us a little bit by getting people into programs to give them a credential which added them to our numbers. But it also got them a job that could also not be so affected by something like the pandemic.”
Gov. Kay Ivey in 2018 set the ambitious 500,000 goal as part of her “Success Plus” initiative, which if accomplished would bring the level of work-age Alabamians with post high school training or degrees from about 43% in 2016 to 60% by April 30, 2025.
“Right now, we’re moving the needle in the right direction,” Castile said.
Higher education enrollment numbers also reflect an uptick in students entering into degrees higher than a bachelor’s degree during the pandemic.
Alabama’s four-year institutions only saw about 675 more students enrolling in the fall of 2020 compared to the fall of 2019.
“We do know that slight increase was basically because a lot of the seniors went on to graduate school since there were no job opportunities at that time,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.
Alabama’s postsecondary education attainment rate has been steadily increasing since 2008 with the most recent numbers from 2019 showing the state at 45.1%, according to the Lumina Foundation. That tracks with what state education and workforce leaders are seeing.
Purcell said studies have shown that two-thirds of the workforce needs in Alabama are at the bachelor level or higher, with an emphasis toward science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Medical degrees are the most sought-after degrees in Alabama, with the most baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees obtained in the state all being either nursing or medicine degrees.
The state’s two-year colleges are also helping create new job opportunities across the state with emphasis toward essential skills training or specialized credentials.
Keith Phillips, the vice chancellor of Workforce and Economic Development at the Alabama Community College System, told ADN that in the 2019-2020 school year, the state’s colleges awarded 47,695 credentials.
“Expanding apprenticeship and work-based learning opportunities have also been a focus and ACCS colleges launched 14 new apprenticeships during the pandemic,” Phillips said. “Fifty-six apprenticeship programs are now operational within the ACCS with more than 500 participants.”
The community college systems enrollment for the fall of 2020 had about 8,000 fewer students than in fall of 2019.
Ivey told ADN that she is proud of the work done so far in reaching her 500,000 worker goal, especially with regards to creating more pathways to gaining credentials.
“Alabama’s work to classify and make non-degree credentials transparent, coupled with our work to tag credentials of value to the competencies for which they denote mastery, will help Alabamians who are reentering the workforce after COVID-19 upskill into an in-demand occupation,” Ivey said. “We are now in position for rapid growth, and I am confident we can achieve that.”
Castile said that going forward his department is working on gathering more data about exactly how many workers are in the state, where they are and what industry they’re working in.
ACHE is working on launching the Alabama Credential Registry which will be a centralized registry of all certificates, licenses, traditional degrees and non-degree credentials offered in Alabama.
Castile said he also hopes they overshoot the 500,000 goal because at the rate that technology, the economy and industries change, that goal will be insufficient to make Alabama’s workforce competitive in the U.S. economy.
“It’s been several years since we put together that initial goal, and you know, the world’s changing, and we don’t need to be at 499,000, we need to be at 600,000 or beyond,” Castile said.