Birmingham, Alabama, Strengthens Its Workforce Through Data Analytics

When communities seek to increase jobs, incomes and wealth, data is usually not the first place they turn. However, Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin and the city’s business community did just that when they came together to kick-start the local economy by developing local talent.

Birmingham provides an important example for other cities, particularly through the Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama’s Workforce Action Network, a group of more than 200 regional organizations that have tackled economic and employment issues starting with a data analysis base. His report, Build (It) Together: A Framework for Aligning Education and Jobs in Greater Birminghamcame after city leaders noticed the economy lacked expansion in “trading industries,” or local goods and services that bring in dollars from outside the region.

The analysis revealed issues related to aligning relevant credentials and training with economic development aspirations. They needed to improve the configuration and number of two- and four-year degree options to fuel the desired expansion of the local economy. Local colleges and job trainers did not consistently meet employers’ needs, and training for some critical jobs in local industries was insufficient.

Looking for my new book, grow enough, co-authored with former nonprofit leader Kate Coleman, we examined how city leaders have developed platforms and used data to advance economic mobility. Too often, well-intended efforts to increase economic mobility fail due to the lack of an effective, easy-to-understand data platform that fosters knowledge and collaboration among regional stakeholders. A data platform and ongoing analytics provide the building blocks of a system that identifies the skills needed to create jobs in key regional industries, including upskilling current workers and nurturing potential applicants. For Mayor Woodfin, that meant identifying skills gaps (and underutilized skills) within the local workforce. The business community has also highlighted the need for degrees and retention of more students in relevant fields at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Birmingham exemplifies several important principles about how data and technology innovations can drive value, starting with effective leadership to ensure a collaborative effort uses data to drive real change. Working with then-Woodfin adviser Josh Carpenter, a former assistant professor of economics at UAB, the city and its nonprofit and economic development partners shared data and analysis.

The commissioned initial report drew attention to the problem and possible solutions. In this case, the data showed which skills were needed and which training was under- or excess. Mayor Woodfin used the report to catalyze community action.

The data has clarified the city’s competitive position and fueled important initiatives such as the Birmingham Promise, which offers scholarships to students pursuing studies in targeted areas for competitive growth. The city has also shaped economic development initiatives and university/city partnerships around the analyses. The Birmingham Promise has served over 1,000 students from Birmingham City Schools since its launch in 2019.

Across the country, new technological approaches are improving workforce outcomes. The best platforms use machine learning to read job postings and resume job postings to understand where skills gaps are and identify job opportunities. The dynamics of economic mobility must also facilitate access to essential information for learners and consumers. Workers making career decisions must be able to connect job opportunities with the training and education that produces a return on investment. In Colorado, the OnwardCO initiative has made it easier for future learners by simplifying and consolidating job data. The site also connects residents to needed holistic services like child care, mental health care and other essential social supports.

A well-functioning labor market must be able to provide affordable and effective training that can be easily verified by an employer seeking to hire on the basis of skills, not degrees. Local efforts are more likely to succeed when they start as Birmingham did, with a data-driven understanding of local conditions and a plan for equitable growth and education.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of Urban Policy Practice and Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Previously, he served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he established a reputation as one of the nation’s leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen also served as the top domestic policy adviser to George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, president of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The power of social innovation; Governing in a network: the new form of the public sector; Trusting Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work Through Basic Citizenship; The 21st Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The responsive city: engaging communities through smart data governance; and A New City O/S.

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