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“Should I stay, should I go?” Gulf coast employers “grow” their own workers

France Airbus
Frederic Scheiber/AP
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AP
A worker on Airbus' double-deck A380 assembly line stands near a plane, in Toulouse, western France, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Fred Scheiber)

Alabama Public Radio is looking into why educated or skilled workers may leave the Gulf coast for other areas. A survey by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education shows low salaries are a key concern. One possible solution is a training program by Airbus. The European airplane builder has its North American manufacturing plant in Mobile. APR Gulf Coast Correspondent Guy Busby reports how Airbus may help keep young people in the area, while creating a home-grown workforce.

In a community college classroom, teens study subjects like aircraft structural metal work and electrical systems. A few weeks ago, they were high school seniors. In a few more days, these young people will building airplanes at Airbus’ Mobile plant.

France Airbus
Frederic Scheiber/AP
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AP
Workers on Airbus' double-deck A380 plane assembly line inspect a wing, in Toulouse, western France, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Fred Scheiber)

Airbus is one of the Gulf Coast industries developing programs to build its own future workforce. The company plans to open a third assembly line in Mobile. That will create the need another one thousand workers. At the same time, these programs provide the training and opportunities to allow some young people to work and stay close to home.

“Let’s grow our own,” said Michelle Hurdle. She’s director of workforce and economic development for Airbus. “Let’s work with training providers to provide the training that we need at Airbus so we can have those individuals become part of the Airbus team.

Part of Hurdle’s job is overseeing what’s called Flight Path 9. That’s Airbus’s training program for high school students.

“Flight Path 9 is pre-employment training program. It originally started with a class of high school seniors, a class of 25, the majority are still working at Airbus here at Brookley,” said Hurdle. “We selected the students their junior year of high school. They came to training two nights a week during their senior year and they earned over 18 industry-recognized certifications in precision measurement, torque, structural sheet metal. So they are at Airbus right now assigned to stations and doing aircraft assembly.”

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“It was a great opportunity for us just getting out of high school and starting our career and it was moneywise and based on the career.” said Jayla Powell. She’s one of the high school students in the Flight Path 9 program. She says students have a wide variety of fields to study and opportunities for the future.

“You don't have to just be structural,” Powell observed. “You have different ways that you can go. You can do electrical. After being in one position you can apply for another.

Jayla says her family knows firsthand what it’s like to choose between staying home in Mobile or going somewhere else in the country for better jobs at higher pay.

“My granny actually worked in Minnesota for like three years because of the paying job and the she didn't have, really, no experience, but after she got out there, they taught her everything that she needed to know and they kept her out there,” she said.

Jayla says she’s drawn to the electrical work and this gives her the chance to follow that career.

“I've always wanted to be an electrician, so by doing the electrical course, it was kind of in the path I wanted to go,” recalled Powell.

Classmate Diana Pierce was considering working as a nursing assistant when she learned about the Airbus program.

“I really hadn't thought about it much and I felt like it was more than what it actually is at the beginning and my school counselor came up to me and told me about the opportunity. Told me about all the great things and great parts of it and here I am. It's pretty easy,” said Pierce.

And Gulf coast leaders may be following the lead of Airbus when it comes to creating homegrown workers. Across Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, the new Novelis aluminum plant in Bay Minette is about to open. That had educators and economic development supporters thinking like Airbus on training programs. Novelis is expected to employ up to one thousand new workers. Lee Lawson is director of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance.

“Novelis believes that by confidently making the investment in our community that we’re laying the groundwork for not only the initial employment ramp, but for the long-term of creating a sustainable pipeline of workforce to them, across a broad sector of needs, whether it be highly-skilled engineering talent to highly-skilled production talent into the professional services as well that they will need to operate their facility,” said Lawson.

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Lawson says one way to build that local workforce is a proposed career-tech high school aimed at training students for jobs like those at Novelis and Airbus.

“There’s a lot to be said for programs like the career tech high school, Baldwin Preparatory Academy and programs that a lot of businesses and industry are taking on their own, on themselves, and there’s a lot of initiatives across multiple industry sectors where private businesses are plugging in their own formulas and doing their own things and then linking with the public sector and non-profit sector to come up with solutions,” said Lawson.

Lawson says training and keeping that workforce and creating a diversified economy is good for industries, the community and the workers.

“But what we’ve seen in the past is things outside of our control that have an effect on tourism, which is the economy or weather related events or God-forbid, another oil spill happens,” Lawson speculated. “That’s outside of our control, locally, and, from our standpoint, we needed and wanted and have been accomplishing the goal of bringing in businesses and industries, like Novelis that can provide a significant economic impact to our community, but then also provide for a long-term sustainable career for individuals who are seeking that.”

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Frederic Scheiber/AP
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Airbus A350 planes on the assembly line in Toulouse, western France, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Fred Scheiber)

Many young people want the chance to find those opportunities close to home. We met Flight Path student Diana Pierce earlier in our story. She says there are more young people like her who’d like to stay in the Mobile, if good jobs and salaries make it possible.

“A lot of people think you have to find a career and travel to make a living, but that's not the case,” she noted. “There's always an opportunity around. I'm just glad this one fell into our laps. It's just something local, good-paying, benefits and something that if you enjoy doing, you can retire here near your home. You don't have to go travel to make decent money.”

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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