Though unemployment is still high in Calhoun County and the state, studies and workforce experts say many high-skilled technology jobs are available. And some experts say improved educational opportunities for such jobs will put more people to work, while also spurring further economic growth in the state.
Gadsden State Community College and Jacksonville State University recently signed a class-credit-transfer agreement that will make moving between the two institutions easy for students seeking a bachelor of science degree. Through the new agreement, Gadsden State students can now apply up to 64 credit hours toward a bachelor of science degree at JSU in a variety of fields, including electrical technology, drafting and design, electronics engineering, industrial automation, mechanical design, machine tool, air conditioning and civil engineering. After students complete the bachelor’s degree, JSU will then offer them the opportunity to continue earn the graduate-level degree in manufacturing systems technology.
“We’ve had other agreements with JSU, but this is the greatest, most diverse with the greatest number of applied-science degree programs,” said Tim Green, dean of technical programs at Gadsden State. “This is the perfect opportunity for students to finish up their four-year degree and have a leg up on others out there in the workforce.”
Green said he envisions many students getting their two-year degrees at Gadsden State, going to work, and then continuing much of the education for their four-year degrees at night at JSU. Green said the new agreement will also prevent students from needing to retake certain courses. He said there are about 20 Gadsden State graduates currently enrolled at JSU through previous credit transfer agreements that will see their opportunities expand due to the new agreement.
“And I see those numbers of students multiply due to increased awareness,” Green said.
Terry Marbut, head of the technology and engineering department at JSU, said once Gadsden State students get to JSU, they’ll be able to earn degrees to get high-skilled jobs in a variety of industries.
“We’re teaching students to take the technology already out there and use that to solve an industry’s problems,” Marbut said. “Our degrees are good for most anybody who builds products for sale.”
Despite the recession, Marbut said, there is still a strong need in Alabama for high-skilled labor.
“We have no placement problems at all,” Marbut said of his department’s students. “We have more jobs than people available.”
Marbut said JSU engineering students have obtained jobs at Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Lincoln, BAE Systems in Anniston, General Dynamics Land Systems, Bridgewater Interiors and the Anniston Army Depot.
Dave Laton, assistant director of career technical education for the Alabama Office of Workforce Development, said there is a shortage of high-skilled labor in the state.
“It’s really partially due to the influx of new industry in the state like shipping, aircraft, the automotive industry – things like that,” Laton said.
Laton said efforts are underway in the Alabama Community College System, which oversees the Office of Workforce Development, to continually improve educational opportunities so more students can obtain high-skilled jobs.
“In the last couple of years, for instance, there has been more focus on programs that lead to credentialing for industries, such as automotive manufacturing,” Laton said.
A 2011 State of the Workforce report from the Center of Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, highlights a skills gap across the state and Calhoun County. The report breaks up the state into nine regions. The report indicates that Calhoun County is part of the region with the lowest number of educated workers compared to the rest of the state.
About 76 percent of residents 25 years old or older in Calhoun’s region have graduated from high school, compared to 81 percent for the state average. And of the 25 years old or older population, only 14 percent in Calhoun’s region have a bachelor’s degree or higher versus 22 percent for the rest of the state.
“The shortage of highly skilled and technically skilled workers is a national problem,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, which is tasked with spearheading economic development in the state. “It is a concern that we are very actively addressing in Alabama.”
Canfield said that for the first time in recent years, the economic development community, private industry, the kindergarten through 12th-grade school system, community colleges and universities all are working together to provide solutions.
Canfield said the new arrangement between Gadsden State and JSU is the kind of thing needed to help spur development in the state.
“As we continue to concentrate on aerospace, metals and the other advanced manufacturing sectors, the demand for engineers and those with technical skills and education will only increase,” Canfield said. “This arrangement will help spark more interest from students to enter into the engineering and sciences and we will help by providing the industry to employ them – this is exactly the right approach and will pay great dividends in our state as we move forward.”
Star Staff Writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star