By Josh Carpenter
Birmingham’s economy is a Tale of Two Cities. Recently, our city was designated as both a “Smart City” and a “Rise of the Rest City,” and home-grown start-up Shipt sold to Target for $550M. In 2015, Birmingham was named a TechHire city, posting the second-fastest IT job growth in the country as a percentage of its IT workforce. Out of this designation emerged Innovate Birmingham, a workforce training program preparing 925 of our young folks for high-demand, high-wage IT jobs. Our city has among the highest per-capita concentration of healthcare jobs, and we continue to thrive as a hub for automotive manufacturing.
However, this positive momentum does not tell the full tale of the Birmingham economy.
America’s 182 largest cities were recently ranked according to how easy it was to find a job. Birmingham ranked 178th. Though the unemployment rate is reported around 4 percent statewide, more than 40 percent of adults in Birmingham have left the workforce because they cannot find work. Thirty percent of our citizens live in poverty—42 percent of families with children. Nearly 60 percent of the city’s households have an income of less than $40,000 per year, which is well below Birmingham’s estimated livable wage of $62,380.
This is the tension in which our city dwells: on the one hand, we have momentum in the innovation economy, we have strong capabilities in the automotive sector and emerging promise in the life sciences sector. On the other hand, poverty and joblessness distress many neighborhoods in our community.
In early March, I began my term as the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development which recently incorporated as the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity (IEO). I accepted the call to serve in this position because I know that as a city, we can be a model for progress, producing evidence-based solutions to some of the country’s most persistent economic problems.
Our vision is to make Birmingham a hub for qualified and diverse talent and a premier destination for small businesses, startups and businesses looking to expand—propelling shared prosperity through inclusive growth. When a woman of color wants to start a business anywhere in the nation, we hope she chooses to launch in Birmingham because it has earned a reputation for being the best place for women and minorities to start a business.
We believe that Birmingham’s next generation of builders and social innovators can find inspiration in a place where children marched for equality in Kelly Ingram Park, where Fred Shuttlesworth fought injustice from the pulpit, and where Dr. King outlined a vision of unity from a jail cell.
IEO understands that “putting people first” is much more than just Mayor Woodfin’s campaign slogan; it’s a strategy to govern. Our team wakes up every day to work tirelessly on co-designing an economy with our community that allows our residents to create their own economic futures, grow their companies, and find their purpose. To us, “putting people first” means pursuing results not rhetoric. It means understanding that a diverse and qualified workforce is the critical engine to power Birmingham’s future economic growth that is more inclusive and sustainable.
We have spent the last few months designing a strategic plan that outlines a pathway for us to achieve our vision. This plan has been informed by small business owners, entrepreneurs, citizens ecosystem builders, the corporate community and national best practices from thought leaders such as the Brookings Institute, the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Our city has a history that reminds us that progress starts with believing that when given a fair shot, people can thrive and communities can flourish. Without a doubt, the path to an inclusive economy will involve difficult decisions and the recognition of hard truths. However, through it all, the IEO will remain anchored in a simple truth: talent is distributed equally in our community, but the opportunity is not. We are going to work to change that.
Dr. Josh Carpenter is Director of the City of Birmingham’s Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.