More than 10,000 jobs went unfilled last year in Alabama because employers could not find workers with the required skills to fill them. Every job left unfilled affects not only a particular business, but also the community in which the business resides. And not just that business and community, but also the state at large.

Every job left unfilled suggests lost productivity for a business, lost spending and tax dollars by that potential worker in a community, and is another indicator to potential businesses considering moving to this state that finding qualified workers may be a huge obstacle.

A key component of economic development is having a properly educated and skilled workforce, and such a workforce doesn’t develop by chance.

In today’s economy, education beyond high school is a must. However, many young Alabamians feel powerless to realize this goal. College — inclusive of not just a four-year degree but also a technical/professional certificate through a two-year program — seems totally out of reach. In a state where 850,000 working-age adults are categorized as economically insecure (defined as living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line), many young Alabamians have only seen and known economic struggle. The thought of paying for and completing college is the stuff of dreams.

Dreams, however, can become reality.

The Cash for College campaign is helping change the economic fortunes of young Alabamians by putting them on the path to college. The program was started by Alabama Possible, a statewide nonprofit that works to remove barriers to prosperity, to motivate Alabama high schools to encourage students to take an important step in the college attendance process: filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is an annual requirement for undergraduate and graduate students and determines a student’s eligibility for various types of student aid. Researchers from the United States Department of Education have come to a profound conclusion regarding FAFSA — 9 out of 10 students that complete the application end up attending college the following fall.

Equally profound, being that the FAFSA determines a student’s eligibility to receive federal grants (aid that doesn’t have to be repaid) and loans (aid that does have to be repaid), because of the financial circumstance of the households in which many young people in Alabama live, they qualify for a Pell Grant. In other words, up to $6,095 per year is available to a large number of Alabama high school graduates to attend college — $6,095 a year that doesn’t have to be repaid.

In an economic environment where postsecondary education is a must, Alabama high school graduates have a powerful springboard through Pell Grants to acquiring the education and skills they need to be successful in today’s workforce. Cash for College is prioritizing this fact, and the program is proving successful.

June 30 was the unofficial end of the FAFSA completion season, and according to national data, Alabama had the nation’s fourth-largest increase in FAFSA completions. That means across the state in 2018, high school graduates opened up access to $60.4 million in Pell Grant funds to attend college. This is a significant achievement.

This past spring, Alabama Possible recognized six high schools statewide that participate in the Cash for College program for gains their 2018 senior class made in FAFSA completion. One of those six is located here in Mobile — Williamson High School. Williamson was recognized for showing significant improvement in its 2018 FAFSA completion rate compared with 2017, tangible proof the school is doing its part in trying to create a “college-going culture.”

Even with Cash for College’s success this year, there is still more work to be done in creating a “college-going culture” throughout the state. Although Alabama had the fourth-largest increase in FAFSA completions nationwide, we came in 31st in the nation overall for FAFSA completion. Put another way, $57.5 million in Pell Grant monies was left on the table, unused by Alabamians.

As one study has noted, “Alabama’s future competitiveness depends on the participation and inclusion of all of our residents, especially those who are locked out of the economy.” Getting young Alabamians into college is the key to positively impacting Alabama’s economic and socioeconomic future.

The word “college,” though, must become more broadly understood or interpreted as encompassing a wide array of postsecondary educational options. This doesn’t mean attending or completing a four-year program should be diminished, it simply embraces the fact that in the 21st century, education and skills attainment leading to career success can be achieved in a variety of ways.

It’s important we recruit a diverse array of businesses and industries as well as incubate homegrown ones. Equally important, though, is that we invest in the human capital needed to ensure those businesses can thrive and grow. Consistently getting our high school graduates into the college pipeline is an essential step in achieving that.