Birmingham has the second fastest information technology (IT) job growth in the U.S., but it doesn’t have enough people trained to fill those jobs, according to city, education, and business leaders.
That could be changing.
In mid-February, a group of 18 students gathered for the first round of IT Specialist training sessions from Generation, a project of the McKinsey Social Initiative, at the Innovation Depot in downtown Birmingham.
“We have more jobs available right now than we have people who are trained and prepared to take on those jobs,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell. “There are [hundreds of] jobs right now in technology that are going unfilled.”
The program is part of the Innovate Birmingham Regional Workforce Partnership, a coalition of public, community, business, and education leaders committed to fostering economic growth for the region and offering better opportunities for young adults.
The goal is to train 925 Birmingham-area young people for high-wage, high-demand IT jobs.
The program’s benefits are wide-ranging, the mayor said.
“The city benefits by retaining this talent in Birmingham, maintaining a strong workforce, and eventually building better communities,” Bell said. “Clearly, there is a positive impact on local businesses when they have a well-trained talent pool to choose from. Additionally, it is easier to recruit new business to Birmingham when the talent is available to fill their open positions. The cycle continues to benefit those involved.”
Leap of Faith
Shauntoria Craver is among the 18 students in the inaugural Generation IT class, which began on Feb. 13. She took a leap of faith when she submitted an application for the program.
“After I filled out the application, I quit both of my jobs,” said Craver, 27. “I hadn’t even gotten an interview or gotten approved yet, but after I filled out the application I just felt like it was what I was supposed to do.”
Craver, who worked at a rehabilitation center and as a bartender in a downtown hotel, said she applied because she was “looking for some type of certification … that would allow me to get my feet wet career-wise.”
Many tech jobs can pay between $13 and $20 an hour, said Josh Carpenter, PhD, director of external affairs in the office of UAB President Ray Watts.
“Tech is changing the industry, and we’re trying to think of ways we can prepare people for the change,” said Carpenter, who spearheaded the process to obtain funding for the program via the America’s Promise grant.
Created by the U.S. Department of Labor, the America’s Promise grant is designed to equip Americans with the proper skills to obtain employment in high-demand industries. The Innovate Birmingham Regional Workforce Partnership was awarded $6 million over a four-year span.
“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said Bell, “and the city of Birmingham’s leadership is proud to be among the dedicated team that combined their time, expertise, and resources to develop a compelling plan that … will have a great impact on our communities.”
Wayne Heard, a teaching assistant with Generation IT, said, “Programs like this make that perfect union between employers and those who want to learn and go into [the workforce]. A lot of times, the barrier to progress is the lack of opportunity.”
Generation IT is a 12-week course (classes are held Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) during which students participate in fast-track IT Specialist training and receive certification that makes them eligible for entry-level IT help desk jobs. Students also learn other valuable skills, such as financial literacy; resume and cover letter writing; verbal communication; and interview techniques.
“This is entry-level certification that says … ‘I know how the equipment works, I understand the operating systems, I can work the command line, and I can provide service troubleshooting,’” said Shirley Hicks, one of the founders of Red Mountain Makers and a teacher with Generation IT.
The Generation program encompasses several components. Generation IT began in February, and Covalence—a 14-week program that teaches students software design, coding, and web development—begins in May. Students are eligible to attend either Lawson State Community College or Jefferson State Community College to further their careers; both schools offer certificate programs and associate degrees in IT. And eligible students have the opportunity to attend UAB to receive degrees in computer science or software engineering. (Students with a 3.5 or higher GPA will be eligible for an additional $1,500 in scholarships.)
To enroll in the program, participants ages 17 to 29 must be able to commit to a full-time training schedule for 12 weeks and have a high school diploma or GED with basic reading and math skills.
College Not for Everyone
Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said he knows all too well that college may not be for everyone.
“Every child that graduates from high school is not going to college,” he said. “I understand that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t graduate from college until I was 37.”
Austin and his fellow council members also want to ensure that Birmingham’s students are prepared for the workforce and equipped with the tools necessary to land jobs out of high school. Last week they introduced Birmingham Careers, a program that trains high school seniors for local jobs in a variety of fields, including electrical; plumbing; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC); and technology.
“We are connecting young people with these opportunities,” Austin said. “There are more than 5,000 [total] jobs available for our young people, and they are specifically tailored for them because the next generation of jobs is tech-based. This generation knows how to use smartphones and all the technology that’s required.”
Part of the plan is to keep the jobs local, he said: “We want to make sure that no matter who is coming in, if [businesses] want anything, even $1, from the city of Birmingham, they’re going to hire Birmingham residents and specifically our young people. We’re going to integrate training into the companies that come here and develop our ecosystem. And these trained high school seniors will be ready.”
‘Not a Charity Case’
After students complete the Generation IT program, they have the opportunity to connect with companies for jobs.
“This is not a charity case. They need these [employees],” said Hicks, speaking about Birmingham-area companies. “There is a shortage of the skill set in the region.”
Many students in the Generation IT program are pursuing different degrees and have a variety of interests.
Kimberlyn Bates, 25, who also is studying to be a registered dietician, said she is in the program to diversify her skills.
“I’m preparing for both, and sometimes it gets discouraging because they both involve a lot of information, but I am persistent,” she said. “I’m not sure how I can intertwine the two, but I want to be able to use them both.”
Monique Berry currently has a degree in computer science, but he is having trouble getting into the field.
“I’m unemployed right now, but I’m hoping that having this certificate will put me ahead of the game when I apply for [tech] positions,” he said.
The Innovate Birmingham Workforce Partnership has a network of 15 groups to help train and prepare 925 youth in Birmingham for high-paying, high-demand occupations in the information technology (IT) sector. Here are the consortium structure and responsibilities:
The city of Birmingham will coordinate resources from the TechHire designation to enable the Innovate Birmingham Workforce Partnership to systematically identify gaps in training and employment in the IT sector. The city was selected by the White House to be a TechHire city in fall 2015. TechHire is an initiative to empower Americans with the skills they need, through universities, community colleges, and high-quality online courses that can rapidly train workers for well-paying jobs—often in a few months.
The Birmingham Business Alliance is the economic-development agency representing Innovate Birmingham’s service area. This partner will spearhead employer engagement outreach and strategy.
The Jefferson County Workforce Investment Board (JCWIB) will assist in aligning grant strategies with Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) regional planning and training activities. The JCWIB will provide referrals and Individual Training Account scholarship assistance and authorization.
The Alabama Career Centers within Jefferson County will provide referrals and assist with tracking project participant employment and job retention. Assistance also will be provided with identifying job opportunities and with supportive services.
The Central Six Workforce Development Council will build upon experience in managing sector strategy workforce councils to enable the Birmingham Tech Council to establish mechanisms for connecting employers to education service providers and workers through collaboration with TechBirmingham.
TechBirmingham, the regional tech association for 250 member companies, will facilitate employer engagement for the Birmingham Tech Council by building upon regional models established by Central Six.
Innovation Depot, the epicenter of technology and startups in the Birmingham region, will serve as a key partner and facilitator for IT workforce and training development.
Depot/U will teach aspiring developers front-end or full-stack development skills using an accelerated boot camp model.
Generation, a project of the McKinsey Social Initiative, will pioneer the development of competency-based learning programs that prepare participants with short-term, intensive training.
Lawson State Community College and Jefferson State Community College are the local public two-year higher education institutions responsible for providing both certificate and associate degree training and credentialing in IT.
The Birmingham Education Foundation, which supports Birmingham City Schools, will bridge secondary-to-postsecondary pathways by recruiting participants into the pipeline and providing mentoring services for enrolled participants.
The Alabama Possible Cash for College program will provide assistance with Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) paperwork completion for area youth, as well as college-entry support.
The Dannon Project, a nationally recognized job-development and case-management program, will serve as the first point of contact for participants. The organization will handle intake and provide supportive services, case management, and pathway development.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is the regional public four-year education institution charged with providing bachelor’s-level education in computer science or software engineering. UAB served as the lead partner and fiscal agent for the consortium.