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“Should I stay or should I go?” -- Fighting the “good old boy” system along the Gulf coast

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Keeping educated and skilled workers from leaving Alabama appears to be an on-going concern. Efforts are underway at the State, regional, and local levels to attract and hold onto workers, including the Alabama Gulf coast. Surveys of those leaving Alabama for other parts of the U.S. cite a range of complaints as reasons for looking elsewhere to work and live. The Alabama Public Radio news team is examining problems and solutions to this issue in an on-going series of reports called “Should I stay, or should I go.”

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“I feel like it is too hard to make a living in Alabama outside of state government, the university system, or the military. Nepotism is rampant and opportunities for new graduates without connections are few and far between,” responded one person who was interviewed for the Alabama Commission on Higher Education’s “Retain Alabama Survey Report” in 2021.

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Alabama workers, who were interviewed for the report and indicated they might not abandon the state for other regions of the U.S., spoke favorably of job opportunities at Alabama’s colleges and Universities, including the University of Mobile and the University of South Alabama along the Gulf coast. The concern appears to be for people who want to build careers as professionals in Alabama’s port city. There’s a saying for those to tend to succeed.

“You were born in an Azalea bush,” observed Terrence Smith.

“I’m not one of those guys,” he added.

Smith is the director of Mobile Mayor’s Sandy Stimpson’s Innovation Team. He’s also a Johns Hopkins University fellow in public innovation. Smith says he succeeded the hard way, after growing in a Mobile area housing project and public schools targeting African American young people. By “being born in an Azalea Bush,” Smith is talking about the tendency among Gulf coast workers to get ahead based on things like “who you family is,” “where you went to school,” and so on. That strategy may work for people with connections, but it could prompt younger workers without those advantages to look elsewhere for work. Critics quoted in the Alabama Commission on Higher Education “Retain Alabama” report in 2021 also complained that factors like race, religion, and political leanings also play unfairly in job success. We’ll get to that.

Smith says the business climate in the Mobile area is generational. The area may attract up and coming workers, but once they’re there, keeping them is difficult because of the obstacles imposed by the so-called “good old boy” system.

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“It’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it,” Smith observed. “You can attract and pour water into that bucket, but then it pours out because you’re not doing what it takes to retain a young professional.”

Barriers to success and advancement based on race made the news this month when Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Birmingham. He announced grants to help overcome racial segregation that was promoted following the creation of the Interstate Highway system, including in Alabama. Those construction projects, critics alleged, were designed to box African Americans into specific districts to separate them from their white neighbors and the opportunities they enjoyed, but black residents did not. Birmingham’s Bull Connor reportedly used development of Interstates 59 and 65 to segregate portions of the “magic city’s” population in that way in the 1950’s. To hear Terrence Smith tell it, Mobile didn’t need interstate highways to do the same thing along the coast.

“It’s evident when you look around,” Smith contended. “And I think it’s based on certain practices and institutions which are boosters or blockers for certain groups. And I think some of the practices have disappeared, but others are really baked into the fabric of what we’ve become.”

Racial issues and the south seem synonymous. However, White points out his recent experience shows that doesn’t have to be the case. As we mentioned earlier, he’s a Johns Hopkins University fellow in civic innovation. White has spent the past four weeks in Maryland, which is considered a southern state. However, he says the business and networking climate in Baltimore seems a world away from coastal Alabama.

“What it’s taken me ten years to build as a social network in Mobile, I feel I’m halfway to that in Baltimore in the first four weeks,” White said. “Because it’s not really about what high school I went to, or what neighborhood I grew up in, it’s what value to you bring to the job.”

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White believes Baltimore’s openness, compared to the Mobile area, is due to a number of factors. The city on the Chesapeake Bay sits close to Washington, D.C., Howard University, and the University of Virginia. This apparently has led to more of a “melting pot” attitude that fosters inclusion and clears the path upward mobility. White thinks focusing on students and new graduates from Gulf coast institutions of higher learning like the University of South Alabama and the University of Mobile can help keep workers from straying away from the region.

“We can reach out to them,” said White. “We can figure out their needs, and where they want to go, what they want to do. And how do we get them involved in ways they want to get involved. How do we get feedback when we’re planning, how we operate, and how we’re co-create solutions, for the people we want to attract and retain.”

Judging from White’s experience in the Baltimore area, it’s not a matter of the Alabama Gulf coast losing workers to the town known as “charm city.” He’s run into people who used to live in the Mobile area, but left for Baltimore because they realized what favorable treatment they could get in Maryland compared to what was going on along the Alabama coast.

“I was surprised to see how many people from the Gulf coast are living in the (Baltimore) area, and how open they were,” White recalled. “And as we move on, it’s important to also connect with those people, and those voices, to understand and what their opinion is for why they’re out here, and what they can add to their hometowns.”

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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