Opinion – Mark Singletary

By Mark Singletary

The latest jobs data for the U.S. shows a national unemployment rate of 4.3 percent and a labor force participation rate of 62.7 percent. Both of these data points continue to show improvement in private sector job creation.

Alabama’s July 2017 unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, a ranking of 34th among the states, tied with Texas and West Virginia. To put things into perspective the top ranked states for jobs are Colorado and North Dakota, each with an unemployment rate of 2.3 percent. The latest data for labor force participation shows Alabama’s participation rate at just over 55 percent.

The national data is interesting, but more telling is how Alabama is preparing a workforce for the future. The state’s economic future rests on the ability to train and keep a workforce that can perform the jobs of this century.

Back when I was growing up, there was a program called Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA). VICA students learned to weld, work on cars, stuff envelopes and fix hair. VICA is now known as SkillsUSA, an international partnership of students, teachers and industry.

VICA became SkillsUSA-VICA in 1999 and the name was shortened to its present format, SkillsUSA, in 2004.

Whatever it’s called, it is much more than metal shop and cosmetology.

According to the organization’s website, “SkillsUSA is a national partnership of students, teachers and industry representatives working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce. SkillsUSA is a national membership organization serving middle-school, high-school and college/postsecondary students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled service occupations, including health occupations.”

There are over 12,000 students and advisors presently enrolled in Alabama chapters of SkillsUSA, according to Keith Andrews, the college and postsecondary state director and central district coordinator. Nationally, there are 335,000 students and advisors in SkillsUSA.

The State of Alabama is divided into five districts for SkillsUSA membership. The greater Birmingham area is in the central district. All seven Birmingham City Schools high schools are members. A complete membership list for the central district is contained on the Alabama SkillsUSA website: alskillsusa.org.

The mission is pretty simple: to empower its members to become world-class workers, leaders and responsible American citizens, according to the organization’s literature.

Students learn real job skills, both technical and leadership. There is training in drafting, carpentry, masonry, electrical wiring, electronics, culinary, welding, automotive repair, cosmetology, audio visual production and design, web design, graphics and many more technology related job skills.

Students learn to fix everything from cars to omelets. They learn how to program computers, design websites and build brick buildings. With real job skills learned through proven vocational training programs, these students can compete for great jobs and a bright future.

Among the more interesting and possibly significant benefits of a SkillsUSA membership is the opportunity to participate in the SkillsUSA Championships. Students and advisors compete in over 90 events that showcase the best career and technical education students in the nation. Some of the more intriguing categories include 3-D visualization and animation, cabinet making, commercial baking, crime scene investigation, plumbing and robotics.

The competition starts locally and ends up at the national championships.

It’s hard to keep pace with, much less anticipate, which job skills will be important in our new economy. Training a workforce that is flexible and knowledgeable is vital to Alabama’s economic success and future. Having a program available and utilized properly, like SkillsUSA, is a real benefit for economic developers.

Every time a major industrial inquiry comes to the state, there is a question about workforce. The success that Alabama and other Southeastern states have had in recruiting major employers to the region is based in part on a trained and available workforce.

Educational programs like those offered by SkillsUSA continue to give young workers the training and experience needed for jobs in the future.