- April 11, 2022
This article originally appeared in Governing Magazine.
When communities look to grow jobs, income and wealth, data isn’t the first place they usually turn. However, Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin and the city’s business community did exactly that when they came together to jump-start the local economy by developing homegrown talent.
Birmingham provides an important example for other cities, especially through the Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama’s Workforce Action Network, a group of over 200 regional organizations that tackled economic and employment issues by starting with a foundation of data analysis. Its report, Building (it) Together: A Framework for Aligning Education and Jobs in Greater Birmingham, came after city leaders noticed the economy lacked expansion in “traded industries,” or local products and services that bring dollars in from outside the region.
The analysis surfaced issues related to the alignment of relevant degrees and training with economic development aspirations. They needed to improve the configuration and number of two- and four-year degree options to power the desired expansion of the local economy. Local colleges and job trainers were not consistently responding to employer needs, and training for some critical jobs in local industries was undersupplied.
In research for my new book, Growing Fairly, co-authored with former nonprofit executive Kate Coleman, we looked at how leaders in cities developed platforms and utilized data to advance economic mobility. All too often, well-intentioned efforts to increase economic mobility flounder due to the lack of an efficient and easy-to-understand data platform that furthers insights and collaboration among regional stakeholders. A data platform and ongoing analyses provide the basic building blocks of a system that identifies the skills needed to grow jobs in key regional industries, including upskilling current workers and encouraging prospective ones. For Mayor Woodfin this meant identifying skill gaps (and underutilized skills) in the local workforce. The business community also promoted the need to graduate and retain more students in relevant areas from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
Birmingham illustrates several important principles concerning how data and technology innovations can drive value, starting with effective leadership to ensure that a collaborative effort uses the data to power true change. In conjunction with Woodfin’s then-adviser Josh Carpenter, formerly assistant professor of economics at UAB, the city and its nonprofit and economic development partners shared data and analyses.
The initial commissioned report drove attention to the problem and possible solutions. In this case, the data showed what skills were needed and what training was under- or oversupplied. Mayor Woodfin utilized the report to catalyze community action.
The data clarified the city’s competitive position and powered important initiatives such as the Birmingham Promise, which provides scholarships to students pursuing degrees in areas targeted for competitive growth. The city also fashioned economic development initiatives and university/city partnerships around the analyses. The Birmingham Promise has served more than 1,000 Birmingham City Schools students since launching in 2019.
Around the country, new technological approaches are improving workforce results. The best platforms use machine learning to read job and resume postings to understand where skill gaps exist and identify employment opportunities. The drive for economic mobility must also provide easy access to critical information for learners and consumers. Workers making career decisions need to be able to connect job opportunities with training and education that produces a return on investment. In Colorado, the OnwardCO initiative made it easier for prospective learners by simplifying and consolidating job data. The site also connects residents with necessary wraparound services like childcare, mental health care and other crucial social supports.
A well-functioning labor market must be able to provide affordable, effective training that can easily be verified by an employer looking to hire on skills not degrees. Local efforts are more likely to succeed when they start as Birmingham did, with a data-informed understanding of local conditions and a plan for equitable growth and education.