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Education hurts job options

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a 5-part series that takes a look at the potential for economic development in West Alabama and the Black Belt.

Most times, the comments come from people who reject the idea of having their names in print. They don’t find it proper to question schools or educators. They display sympathy for a learning system that apparently lacks appropriate funding. They take caution in stepping on toes.

That doesn’t mean the comments and questions aren’t there.

Blame for the economic struggles that grip this region of Alabama range anywhere from transportation to work ethic to infrastructure. Second only to transportation, however, is the education of the workforce in West Alabama. Industries don’t locate in this region because the roads aren’t wide enough and the workers aren’t smart enough.

Alvin Williams, who manages the New Era plant in Demopolis, doesn’t necessarily buy that argument. At his company, where Major League Baseball hats are produced, the workforce is as trainable here as it is anywhere.

Last year, the city of Demopolis announced it had received a $1.25 million grant to build a higher education center. Funding for that center was secured, in part, because of the work of administrators at Alabama Southern in Thomasville.

Carolyn Etheridge, who works from the Alabama Southern office, coordinates education programs for industries in West Alabama at the Alabama Technology Network, and she’s spent a lot of time at New Era, along with many other industries in the area.

What’s the problem?

While there are plant managers who have complained about an educated workforce, there are just as many who express satisfaction with the employees who fill the payroll. And those, like Etheridge, who spend time training the workers, believe education is not the problem.

If that’s the case, then why does the education argument always take center stage in the discussion of inadequate jobs?

One answer may rest with the very citizens and potential employees who live in West Alabama. According to a study conducted by the Alabama Education Association, citizens in Alabama’s Black Belt said schools and education rank near the top of the economic struggles of this region.

Reality sets in

That gloomy, if not pessimistic, report from Alabama’s education system, does plenty to squelch the argument that workers in the area really are educated. If people here don’t believe they’re educated, then it’s hard to convince anyone otherwise.

More importantly, every education statistic throughout the state points to a poor level of education in Alabama’s rural communities &045;&045; like the ones in West Alabama.

A recent education accountability assessment released by the AEA shed more light on the education reality of West Alabama. In total accountability, Hale County schools ranked in the 40th percentile. Sumter County schools ranked in the 34th percentile. Demopolis City schools ranked in the 46th percentile.

Compare that to the Hoover City School System, considered one of the best in the state, which ranked in the 72nd percentile.

Williams admits his plant does not require young workers to have college degrees. At the same time, prospective employees are given tests.

Though Etheridge concedes the basic education level in West Alabama isn’t the highest in the state, she points toward the desire of people, rather than their lack of skills.

A better translation might be that the workforce in West Alabama is stuck. With low-wage jobs, people can’t afford to take a semester away from the plant to take college courses.