Work ethic strong for local workforce
Gadsden Times | USA TODAY NETWORK
What’s the No. 1 selling point for the workforce in Gadsden and Etowah County? David Hooks says it’s old school and simple — and absolutely still valid in the 21st century.
“People here know how to work,” the director of the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority observed. “They appreciate work. They expect to be paid for it, but they don’t mind working.
“Everybody talks about this generation of workers, but in this town, in this county, people were brought up and taught by the parents how to work,” he said.
That could be a prerequisite for survival with previous generations, when more people grew up on farms. Hooks said there aren’t as many of those today as there used to be, describing Gadsden and Etowah County today as “an urban hub in a rural area.”
There’s another old-school factor involved aside from family instruction and tradition, according to Hooks. “Kids play baseball, football, soccer, basketball and girls’ softball,” he said, “which also helps give them a work ethic.”
Mark Stancil, principal of the Etowah County Career Technical Center, echoes that assessment. “Team sports are great for preparing kids for the workforce,” Stancil said. “You can find hard workers out of gym and P.E. classes, because if you can’t get them to play hard, you’re not going to get them to work hard.
“Kids who are willing to sweat and play,” he continued, “are also willing to work hard and don’t mind getting after it and working with others.”
Hooks said the IDA considered a branding logo called “Gritty Green,” which he said “had the environmental stuff, but reflected that we know how to work here.”
That highly developed work ethic remains a prized quality, even as Hooks in his recruitment efforts for employers in manufacturing and elsewhere, and education officials tasked with training people to fill those jobs, contend with a landscape that’s completely different from the days when the local economy was driven by the Goodyear and steel plants.
“The whole world is different,” Hooks said. “You’re recruiting companies that are 150 to 300 people, not 1,000 people. Those companies only come along every five years or so now and the whole world is competing for them.”
Those 21st century jobs, especially in manufacturing, require some level of training beyond a high school diploma — if not a two- or four-year degree, then at least a short-term certificate.
Alan Smith, dean of workforce development at Gadsden State Community College, said it’s a matter of educating and inspiring local residents “on the importance of getting workforce training beyond high school. People will be able to get better jobs, and it will help us attract companies.”
Smith noted that traditional manufacturing models could have three semiskilled workers for each skilled worker, and workforce credentials or training after high school weren’t necessary. “Now, you can only have one semiskilled worker for every four skilled workers,” he said, “and you need credentials beyond high school.”
That can start in the high school career tech centers at Gadsden City High School that serve city students, and the Etowah County center that serves students in the county and Attalla systems.
Stancil said kids today are hands-on learners, and the setup on his campus provides real-world lessons. “We simulate workplaces here with leadership roles like shop foreman and safety manager,” he said. “It makes them more productive when they get into the workforce; they’re prepared for what it’s like in a realworld setting.
“It’s not only about teaching them skill sets or a trade,” Stancil said, “it’s about teaching them to be on time, stay off their cellphones and work with others in a production team type environment.”
Gadsden State has more than 70 academic and tech programs that, according to Smith, can prepare people for “direct entry into the workforce,” in keeping with the community college system’s goal of “providing training for industry and the community.”
They include options for students who lack a high school diploma to begin their college studies while also pursuing a GED; and for existing workers to better their positions and potentially earn promotions and higher salaries at their companies by studying advanced robotics and the like.
Smith said that the influx of automobile manufacturers in Alabama, such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz, has placed advance manufacturing techniques in the forefront. “Machines do most of the work,” he noted, “but people work with the machines and are still important.”
Gadsden State features training in mechanatronics, defined by sciencedirect.com as “a new field of engineering that merges mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science” with applications in “medicine, industry, military, smart consumer products and almost every other area of technology.”
It has the only community college civil engineering and court reporting programs in the state, as well as shortterm programs that can get people employed, for instance, as commercial truck drivers and certified nursing assistants.
“In six weeks, a student can get a Class A CDL certificate, and the demand for drivers has gone through the roof,” Smith said. “You can get a CNA certificate in 10 to 12 weeks, and the demand for those is great.”
That’s also proving to be true in manufacturing. Hooks said many companies that went offshore with manufacturing are moving processes back to the U.S. “because they saw after the COVID pandemic that there’s value here.
“Schools here are training people as fast as they can” to fill those jobs, he added. “That’s a good news/bad news situation. A lot of times, we’re training people who leave the state for other areas. So, as we continue to recruit manufacturing companies, we’ve got to make sure we have enough people being trained and going into the workforce.
“If you recruit too many jobs,” Hooks said, “you end up with not enough workforce to fill them. It’s a balancing act.”
He said workforce volume isn’t just a problem locally, but nationally — that a lot of people who left the job market during the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t re-entered it in a way that is captured by government statistics.
“COVID changed how people work,” Hooks added. “The 1,200 people who lost jobs at Goodyear aren’t showing up on a big corporate list, but some of them are now self-employed.”
Still, should the opportunity to land a major employer come along, Hooks said Etowah County could conceivably be a player because of its Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site.
“But most companies don’t need 1,000 acres, and we end up showing them other areas in town,” he said. “They come look at the mega-site, we’ll change the site to meet their needs and they get on board because they like what they see in Etowah County, the training and the workforce.”
That training can start early, and not just in the high school career tech programs. Smith said students can start dual enrollment at Gadsden State in the 10th grade and receive instruction in high-wage, high-demand occupations like manufacturing, health science, construction, transportation and IT, and earn scholarships to pay for that instruction.
Gadsden State’s new Advanced Manufacturing Center, which was announced earlier this year and will cost upward of $30 million, will allow the school to train even more students, Smith said.
Hooks said the Gadsden-Etowah County area’s potential is as a regional manufacturing hub — he said the labor market here draws from a six-county area that extends from Birmingham and Trussville as far east as Rome, Georgia — which also is a potential draw for industries.
Smith pointed out the area being on Interstate 59 and its placement between Huntsville and the Interstate 20 corridor, adding, “It’s a good location for new industries.”
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