It’s been a year since the Community Foundation of South Alabama began an initiative to address a skills gap in the local labor force, and at Thursday’s annual luncheon, Alabama Community College System Chancellor Mark A. Heinrich announced a significant milestone in their efforts.

According to Heinrich, the ACCS will begin construction of an advanced manufacturing training facility at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley within the next two months — something he said would begin to fix a “monumental” gap in Alabama’s labor force.

Alabama Community  College System Chancellor Mark A. Heinrich (accs.cc)

Alabama Community
College System Chancellor Mark A. Heinrich (accs.cc)

“For every ten new jobs in our state and in the nation, one will require a postgraduate degree, two will require a bachelor’s degree and seven will require an associate’s degree or an industry-recognized credential,” Heinrich said. “Yet historically, higher education has ignored that ratio, so we are where we are today.”

According to Heinrich, Alabama is currently seeing a 13-percent gap between the state’s labor pool and the number of skilled workers available for middle-skilled jobs — ones that bring in $40,000 to $80,000 per year.

After meeting with local industry leaders, Heinrich said if there was an infinite supply of skilled labor, as many as 6,000 workers could be hired today.

With the Community Foundation of South Alabama providing a $50,000 seed grant, Heinrich said he hopes the ACCS training facility in Mobile can begin training workers by next spring to begin meeting that need.

“The time a student spends in training can be the equivalent of a standard (college) semester or could take a couple of years, but in most cases, this is going to be pretty quick,” Heinrich said. “The curriculum is driven to a large extent by the businesses and industries to make sure we’re targeting their needs.”

The facility is estimated to cost somewhere between $2 to 4 million. Heinrich said ACCS is continuing to look for industry partners but has already been working “behind the scenes” with the likes of Airbus and others for some time.

With plans to serve nearby industries like Airbus and Austal, Heinrich said the manufacturing training will likely focus on aviation, electronics, mechanics and hydraulics. It will also educate students on how to operate specialized equipment used by manufacturers in the area.

When fully operational, Heinrich said the training facility could serve more than 100 students in multiple shifts, but may only have the capacity for 20 to 30 initially.

Scholarships will be available to those seeking to enroll in the training courses, but Heinrich also alluded to the possibility of future dual enrollment opportunities through partnerships with local school systems.

“It’s what we have affectionately called, ‘earn and learn programming,’ and in some places around the state we’re seeing 10th graders already enrolled through one of our community colleges while they’re working in one of the local businesses,” Heinrich said. “When they graduate, they could nearly have an associate’s degree and step right into a $50,000 to $60,000 a year job. That’s also a model I’d suspect we’ll look at for this facility.”

Heinrich said those opportunities to work while training benefit both businesses and students, but are “very powerful” for those that can’t afford to go unemployed during skills training.

While students will come from area community colleges like Bishop State and Faulkner State, Heinrich said the new facility at Brookley would be operated by the ACCS in Montgomery.