Leaders in the Shoals Seek Greater Collaboration

A new report by PARCA, commissioned by the Committee for a Greater Shoals

Energized by a climate of opportunity and a burst of positive attention for the region, civic leaders in the Shoals have launched a new effort to improve the economy and quality of life through cross-community collaboration.

More than 150 people attended the launch of the effort, which is organized by the Committee for a Greater Shoals, a group of Shoals business leaders. The event featured the release of A Greater Shoals: a Pathway, a report authored by PARCA on the current state of the region and avenues of opportunity.

Shortly after the event, 110 people had signed up for one or more of six committees:

  • Broadening the Definition of Economic Development
  • Developing High-Tech Infrastructure/Recruiting
  • Quality of Life
  • Workforce Development and Education
  • Unified Tourism
  • Government Cooperation and Structure.

Off the Interstate corridor and tucked away in the Northwest corner of the state, the Shoals is often described by residents as a well-kept secret. That is part of the region’s charm, but it’s also a frustration.

Taken together, the four cities at the heart of the Shoals — Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia — have a population of over 70,000. A combination of the four adjacent cities would rank as Alabama’s 7th largest city. Leaders in the Shoals have long wondered if the region was held back by the fragmented nature of the Shoals, with four principal cities, and six school systems spread across two counties.

Building off research PARCA performed on the Birmingham metro area, PARCA found evidence that fragmentation did have discernable negative effects in the Shoals but also identified cooperative structures the Shoals has developed to pull the region together.

The report recommended building on those existing cooperative structures to capitalize on immediate opportunities, while embarking on a longer-term process to decrease governmental duplication and work toward greater unity.

The report found success to build on in the area of education. According to PARCA’s analysis, when the K-12 school systems in the Shoals metropolitan area were considered together, they produce a higher college and career readiness rate among high school seniors than any other Alabama area.

The Shoals also has the second highest college-going rate among Alabama MSAs, thanks in part to a local civic initiative, Shoals Scholar Dollars, that provides scholarships for residents of Colbert and Lauderdale counties. The Shoals is home to a community college, Northwest-Shoals Community College, and a four-year university, the University of North Alabama, both of which are poised for growth.

The Shoals has developed vehicles for bringing its counties and cities together in pursuit of economic development, including a unified economic development authority, a unified economic development fund, and a united two-county Chamber of Commerce.

Those cooperative structures create a strong competitive position for the Shoals in pursuing industrial projects, like suppliers for the Toyota-Mazda Manufacturing plant under construction in Huntsville. But they also provide a framework for cooperation on further developing the Shoals natural and cultural assets.

With the Tennessee River running through its heart, the Shoals has unrivaled natural assets, ripe for further recreational development. On the cultural front, the Shoals has enjoyed a surge of national and international attention to the Shoals’ historic and contemporary contributions to American music. That’s drawn a stream of tourists to the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Florence has emerged unexpectedly as a fashion hub, serving as home base for designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin. That new interest builds on top of tourist attractions like Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia and W.C. Handy’s in Florence. Traditional down towns in Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia have been revitalized with local investment.

A coordinated cooperative effort to build on these strengths would bring more resources and reach, the report observes. Though traditional economic development has focused on developing sites and luring employers with incentives, contemporary economic development includes a focus on developing an ample and high-quality workforce and providing a high quality of life that benefits locals and attracts new residents and businesses.


Making the Workforce System Work for Alabama

Gov Kay Ivey addresses PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting.

Alabama has a record low unemployment rate, with employers hungry for employees. It is a moment of great opportunity to move more Alabamians into the workforce with the skills and education they’ll need to succeed in the 21st-century economy. 

“As we look to our future,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in her keynote address, “more than ever before, now is the time that we must be sure that our workforce is well-equipped to face the opportunities and the jobs of tomorrow.”

That opportunity and the state’s response were the central themes at PARCA’s 2019 Annual Meeting: Does Our Workforce System Work?, held Feb. 15 at the Harbert Center in Birmingham.

The sold-out meeting featured remarks by Raphael Bostic, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, a presentation by Chauncy Lennon, Vice President for the Future of Learning and Work at the Lumina Foundation, and was capped by Ivey’s address.

Bostic laid out the challenge by noting that while many signs point to economic prosperity for Alabama other measures are more vexing:

  • Alabama has one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the U.S. A smaller share of the population participates in work than in most states.
  • Alabama has one of the highest rates of disability among U.S. States. That’s true across all ages, non-Hispanic ethnicities, and education levels, and in both urban and rural areas.
Atlanta Fed Chief speaks on encouraging economic mobility and resilience.

Bringing those discouraged and disadvantaged workers into the workforce presents a prime opportunity for economic growth, Bostic said. If Alabama’s labor force participation rate matched the national average, the state could add 200,000 workers, helping to counter current and anticipated shortages.

If the workforce system can reach those individuals and help them build the knowledge and skills needed to earn a decent living, the whole state benefits through higher tax receipts and lower spending on public assistance, incarceration, and other programs, Bostic said.

Bostic cited successful models for work-based learning in Georgia and the expansion of apprenticeship programs in South Carolina as examples of innovations in workforce development. The Federal Reserve and several partners are compiling research on improving workforce conditions for workers and employers. He also encouraged those interested to follow the Federal Reserve’s stream of information on the region’s economy.

Lumina’s Lennon focused on the need to raise educational attainment levels in Alabama, placing a particular emphasis on the value of earning high-quality certificates or credentials as a way to get individuals into the workforce quickly and without the debt and delay that often accompanies a four-year degree.

The number of good jobs available to those with just a high school degree or less is shrinking, but good jobs are growing for those who’ve completed advanced training or an associates degree. According to Lumina, 62 percent of Alabama working-age adults lack education beyond high school, compared to 53 percent nationally. Providing affordable, accessible, and meaningful training and education for those without education past high school is key to improving Alabama’s competitiveness.

Alabama is in the midst of a multi-year effort to re-energize and better coordinate its approach to education and workforce development. That has been clear in the K-12 system, with its renewed attention to college and career readiness, career technical education, dual enrollment with the community college system, and an improved connection between schools and the business community. PARCA described noteworthy success stories in those efforts were in Leadership Matters, a 2018 report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance and produced in consultation with A+ Education Partnership.

In response to challenges laid out by Bostic and Lennon, a panel of state agency leaders described ongoing efforts to reach untapped populations and to better coordinate workforce development across state agencies.

To quarterback that cross-agency effort, Gov. Ivey created the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation, headed by her education policy advisor Nick Moore. Moore was joined on the panel by Lori Bearden, Assistant Director of Federal Workforce Programs, Department of Commerce; Nancy Buckner, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Human Resources; Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw, Commissioner, Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services; and Fitzgerald Washington, Secretary, Alabama Department of Labor.

Panel of agency leaders involved in workforce development.

These agencies, along with K-12 and Higher Education, are being challenged to expand cooperation with employers and with each other to grow the size and improve the quality of the workforce. That’s the fundamental premise of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the latest effort by Congress to improve the responsiveness and performance of state workforce development systems.

WIOA challenges states to build:

  • A workforce system that better serves individuals by providing a complete set of supports and opportunities leading to successful training and employment. Those services and resources might be drawn from multiple agencies depending on the needs of the individual.
  • A workforce system that is more engaged with employers in matching them with appropriately trained employees. WIOA encourages innovative approaches to directly supporting trainees and business through work-based learning and apprenticeships.
  • A workforce system that is more reflective of and responsive to the needs of the local economy. Alabama has responded to that challenge by forming new workforce councils and workforce investment boards.

Throughout the meeting, PARCA shared videos highlighting workforce strategies in place around Alabama:

To Learn more about Alabama’s evolving workforce development system, explore the following links:

Alabama Success Plus Plan
o includes downloadable educational attainment plan
o Interactive data dashboard
Alabama Workforce Council
o includes 2019 AWC Annual Report to the Governor and Legislature
o Additional annual reports from 2014-2018


Alabama’s Prison System: A Crisis in Corrections

How we view, value, and fund the justice system generally, and prisons, in particular, is complex and value-laden, particularly in Alabama. Our prisons have been marked by violence, overcrowding, poor healthcare, and federal court intervention for more than a century. Our current crisis is again brought into focus through a series of recent and current federal lawsuits.

The status and conditions of Alabama’s prisons will be a major focus in the 2019 legislative session. Governor Ivey has proposed building three new prisons at a cost of $950 million, only the most recent in a series of construction proposals.

At the same time, others are calling for robust reform of the entire criminal justice system.

To help frame this conversation, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama is providing a series of briefs which:

  • explore the general state of Alabama’s prison system;
  • summarize recent sentencing reforms;
  • analyze sentencing in Alabama compared to neighboring states;
  • explore alternative sentencing and community-based responses, and
  • pose questions that advocates of sentencing reform and construction should address.

These forthcoming briefs provide a high-level analysis for state and local policymakers and concerned citizens. They do not provide the solution to Alabama’s prison crisis. Indeed, it may be that no single solution exists. Rather, the goal of the reports is to inform and spur policymakers to action—while there is still time.

Read Brief #1: Introduction