Raising the bar: How Huntsville fosters an exceptional and growing workforce

single-meta-cal January 10, 2018

Six years ago, Mayor Tommy Battle watched with amazement a robotics demonstration at a Huntsville middle school, with the students displaying high-level capabilities on sophisticated machinery – and having fun doing so.

He envisioned then that such an advanced curriculum in public schools, available even as early as elementary grades, and an emphasis on public education could position Huntsville as an attractive location for business and enhance its role in the global marketplace. That capable workforce helped the City become the desired site for the $1.6 billion Mazda and Toyota joint venture announced today.

“Frankly, I think it’s one of the big reasons Mazda and Toyota chose us,” Battle said, referring to the news that the two major auto manufacturers would build a joint-venture manufacturing facility in Huntsville. “We have workers who are already prepared to roll up their sleeves and go to work, and we have the training in place to continue to provide a workforce.”

The operation will require 4,000 jobs. Some of those positions will be filled by newcomers, but most will be filled through “homegrown” talent cultivated through public education and other local opportunities.

What we’re seeing is the result of 10 years of workforce development, thought and planning coming to fruition.”

Huntsville is prepared to handle the challenge, according to Lucia Cape, Senior Vice President for Economic Development at the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve got the numbers to do this job and others,” Cape said. She noted the 4,700 jobs required through the BRAC process a little more than a decade ago “and we had the most successful BRAC ever.

“It’s a different industry, but we’ve done this,” Cape continued. “We have the data to support our confidence in what we’re doing and we have the programs in place that we’ve done before in recruitment and workforce development.”

Strong supply of workforce talent

A recent study by Deloitte indicated that Huntsville could accommodate 7,000 additional advanced manufacturing jobs through 2022, meaning the manpower can be supplied to a new entity without having to cannibalize existing groups for employees.

It was a follow-up study to one that was completed more than five years ago that said Huntsville could absorb 10,000 to 12,000 jobs of similar skill sets through 2024. With the arrival of Polaris and Remington and the workforce they have required, the numbers continue to track the same direction.

City and business leaders long ago recognized the nation’s need to fill an increasing number of science and engineering jobs and took a proactive approach.

“The U.S. is not graduating nearly enough students ready to go into the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields,” said Harrison Diamond, the Business Relations Officer for the City of Huntsville. “What’s compounding that problem is you have the graying of America and you have all those very skilled workers who are coming to retirement age. It’s a big issue. There’s a global war for talent.”

Developing a talent pipeline

School systems have been emphasizing STEM and engaging students in specialized programs, not just in the City of Huntsville but throughout what is called the “labor shed,” the 60-mile radius with nearly 1.4 million people from whom a local workforce could be drawn.

There have been myriad civic partners to the effort, inspiring students with mentors and offering internships and co-ops. Said Diamond, “Huntsville recognized we needed to get businesses involved with the schools, and now we have tons of them doing that.”

Beyond secondary education, the state’s two-year community college system has been a boon, specific to here, Calhoun Community College and J.F. Drake State Community and Technical College.

“They’re the most immediate pipeline,” Cape said. “After a company announces its plans, you have a year or two for the two-year system to provide the additional workforce. They’re very responsive about setting up new programs and they’re very employer-oriented. They want to make sure their students are hired. They’ve been a great asset in making companies confident they’ll have the workforce they’ll need.”

Advanced manufacturing companies have many jobs that require engineering and business skills, and The University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama A&M can fill those needs.

Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), an independent agency under the watch of the Secretary of Commerce, is another tier of the education/training process.

“It’s a one-stop, turnkey workforce recruitment, screening and training program,” Cape said. Interested workers can apply through AIDT for jobs and obtain specialized training that might be needed.

Keeping workers here is key

The City of Huntsville has not only recognized the importance of providing career-ready graduates into the workforce, but also the importance of keeping those graduates here and attracting local students to come “back home.”

According to Cape, a study commissioned in 2000 showed a “brain drain” of some 10,000 potential employees who moved away or didn’t return after graduating elsewhere. Huntsville’s emphasis on a better quality of life for the millennial generation has paid off. A study 10 years later showed “we had regained 7,000 of that group,” Cape said.

“What we’re seeing (with the Madza and Toyota announcement) is the result of 10 years of workforce development, thought and planning coming to fruition,” Cape continued. “You’ve got to plan years in advance to be prepared for something like this, and we did.”

READ about the Toyota-Mazda announcement