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Woodfin and Herring: A Promising Future for Birmingham

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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Dr. Lisa Herring, superintendent of Birmingham City Schools, pose at City Hall. (Photo by Mark Almond)
By Mayor Randall Woodfin and Superintendent Lisa Herring

As mayor of Birmingham and superintendent of Birmingham City Schools, we see reason for hope during this time of year. By the end of this week, we would have joined other officials on stage to shake the hands of nearly 2,000 graduates of the city’s seven, public high schools. Greeting these graduates with countless career opportunities will be among our highest honors.

Yet, too often, we meet students who don’t know what to do once the pomp and circumstance of graduation ends.

More than 45 percent of our students are living in poverty, and only 50 percent of BCS students advance to post-secondary institutions. Birmingham is home to more than 26,000 young people looking for work, a disproportionate share of the nearly 90,000 Jefferson County residents are unemployed or underemployed.

To change these statistics, we are forming the Birmingham Promise: a public-private partnership designed to transform the future of Birmingham’s workforce and re-engineer the architecture of opportunity for Birmingham’s youth.

Through the Building (it) Together report and our partnership with the Brookings Institution, we have invested in understanding our education and workforce challenges. As a community, we must now collectively invest in solutions.

By combining secondary and post-secondary apprenticeships with college scholarships, the Birmingham Promise is pioneering an innovative model to develop pathways into quality jobs in Birmingham’s growing industries. Students will be advised on multiple pathways to “earn-and-learn” as they develop skills to prepare for jobs in industries that are growing in the regional economy. The Promise will use work-based learning opportunities to engage students and families early via career and technical education, dual enrollment opportunities at Lawson State and Jefferson State, and the BCS career academies.

In September, we will formally announce the broader campaign for the Birmingham Promise to bridge talent with opportunity. But we aren’t waiting until next school year to make progress.

This summer, we plan to launch a pilot apprenticeship program for 20 BCS students in partnership with the city’s Departments of Innovation and Economic Opportunity and Youth Services, as well as LRNG—our online learning partner—and regional employers.

We are convinced that our youth and our economy need apprenticeships. Apprenticeships offer vocational education in parallel to work-based learning opportunities guided by a mentor. From the Building (it) Together report, we learned there is a skills mismatch between the talent that employers need and the skills of our workers. The Birmingham Promise partnership brings employers and educators to the same table around apprenticeships and work-based learning. Brookings Institution data reveals that 61 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, even those who are in school, are actively looking for work to help support their families, afford transportation and continue learning.  Young people need a clear pathway to a quality job that enables them to earn and learn, and apprenticeships provide that.

This month, this Woodfin Administration introduced a change in the way the city should invest in its young people by laying the foundation for the Birmingham Promise in the 2019-2020 budget. The city is designating $2 million in post-secondary education and training opportunities for BCS graduates. As mayor, I am proposing that $2 million be designated for post-secondary education and training opportunities for BCS graduates. Alongside our strategic shift toward apprenticeships, this $2 million will seed the Promise campaign.

We are fortunate that 2018-2019 was a record-breaking year for economic investment in our city. We produced more than $1.7 million more in revenue for our schools compared to last year. Our strong economic development performance has emboldened us to invest in the talent and workforce development of the future generation.

Through the Birmingham Promise, we both see an opportunity to weave together the secondary and post-secondary providers with regional employers, bolstered by strong civic leadership and data-driven investments in our city’s future. Together, we can empower more than 15,000 students over the next decade, and in the process, change the landscape of Birmingham’s workforce. For us, graduations this May are just the beginning.

Randall Woodfin is mayor of the City of Birmingham. Lisa Herring is superintendent of Birmingham City Schools.