Across Alabama, free classes to train people interested in working in construction are so popular some have waiting lists. The skills are so in demand, employers sometimes travel to the class locations to make job offers on the spot.
It’s all part of a multipronged effort through the Alabama Community College System’s two-year-old ACCS Innovation Center to quickly train workers for high-demand industries like construction.
Since January 2022, 5,000 people have completed the courses, which also include training for other industries such as food and beverage, said Houston Blackwood, ACCS Innovation Center’s workforce director. A big part of the secret to the programs’ success is relying on local industry expertise to develop the courses.
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One of the employers helping to build the programs is Dunn Construction, a 145-year-old, family-owned firm based in Birmingham, Alabama. With a focus on upskilling the state’s construction workforce, it has piloted and partnered with the innovation center on multiple programs.
“I just had no idea how much this was going to change our state,” said Chris Stricklin, president of Dunn University, the company’s training arm.
Community college systems in North Carolina, Hawaii, Louisiana and elsewhere are rolling out free training for high-demand industries like construction. Across the country, the industry is grappling with a national labor shortage and aging workforce, while also struggling to convince younger generations to join.
In Alabama, the need for workforce training was evident. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state has one of the country’s lowest labor participation rates, defined as the percentage of adults who are employed or actively looking for a job, at 57% in May 2023. The U.S. average that same month was about 63%.
In the past three fiscal years, state lawmakers have approved $41 million toward the innovation center, Blackwood said, making it easier for community colleges across the system to offer the training and ensuring it remains free for students.
Providing educational programs at no cost is critical to making them accessible, according to Blackwood and Stricklin. For a potential student who is unemployed or underemployed, even a course costing a couple hundred dollars can be out of reach. “As servant leaders, our job is to remove all barriers to make it as easy as possible for people to upskill or career advance,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin, a retired fighter pilot and U.S. Air Force colonel, started working with Dunn to build internal and external training programs in 2019. That year, frustrated at a government meeting where a lot of talk but little action to support the state’s workforce seemed poised to happen, Stricklin split off with some colleagues to come up with ideas.
“We asked ourselves, as industry experts, what would we appreciate if somebody showed up on the job with,” he said. “And the simple answer was the day you walk onto my job to work for the first day, I want you to have two weeks’ experience.”
For somebody hired to drive a wheel loader, for example, it would be nice if they knew at least the basics on their first day—how to check the oil, conduct a pre-start inspection and raise and lower the bucket.
With those basics in mind, Dunn and some industry partners built out a syllabus for basic courses and began offering them through an agreement with Jefferson State Community College, part of Alabama’s community college system. They targeted both existing construction workers, eager to boost their skills and earning potential, and people new to the field. “We’re building up the workforce, but we’re also expanding it,” Stricklin said.
Separately, in 2021, as state leaders searched for ways to rebuild Alabama’s workforce after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community college system launched its innovation center. Soon, it also partnered with Dunn to expand on existing programs and offer them across the state.
“They make it right,” said Blackwood of Dunn and the other employers the center collaborates with. “They make the content perfect. So, when the students come out of those courses, they have exactly what those companies need.”
Through those industry collaborations, the center offers multiple programs for students interested in building a career in construction. Innovation center students can walk away with training to operate a bulldozer or skid steer, prepare for CDL Class A and Class B licensing tests and receive credentials to drive a dump truck.
Courses include both online and in-person modules. Students start with a self-paced portion, with videos and interactive instruction. Then they travel to one of the state’s community colleges to get hands-on experience.
Just like offering the course for free, that flexibility is key to reaching people who could benefit. The ability to complete some of the training on their own time clears away obstacles for students who might not have the ability to miss a few work hours or search for childcare alternatives. “We want to make it easy for people,” Stricklin said.
The innovation center is just getting started, Blackwood said. Programs coming soon include courses to train students to become carpentry and electrical helpers.
Going forward, both Stricklin and Blackwood are excited for what the center’s growth means for Alabamians eager to start or jumpstart their careers in construction. Both shared stories of course graduates who doubled their earnings, launched their own business or have more time with their kids because they’re no longer working third shift.
Not every student will ultimately pursue a lifelong construction career, and that’s expected. “We don’t need workers in jobs,” Stricklin said. “We need people who participate in making the company better and get something intrinsically out of it. There is a perfect job for everybody out there if we let them find it, and we empower them to.”