Bradley Byrne at the Editorial Board: Adult Education and Workforce Development

MONTGOMERY, Ala., Aug. 6, 2007 -- During his visit with the WSFA Editorial Board, Chancellor Bradley Byrne talked about, and was asked about, many issues besides the current personnel policies headed for the State Board of Education for consideration.

Byrne started his talk by painting a picture of where "we started and where we are."

"In the two-year college system in Alabama we serve almost 300,000 people.  We have 11,000 employees.  We have 29 different entities that do our thing.  We primarily are focused on workforce development, adult education, and the two-year college transfer function."

"This is a state where workforce development is a critical need right now everywhere and we have 25% of our adults that do not have high school diplomas or GEDs so you can imagine what that adult education function means."

"And, we have found that there are lots of people in Alabama who may not be mature enough, didn't get good enough grounding in high school, and they need some individual instruction or maybe they don't have the money, that need to start at a two-year college before they go to a four-year college."

"Those three functions are very important to a lot of people in this state and this is a very critically important time right now with all these jobs flooding in here."

"If ever there was a time when we needed a high-functioning two-year college system, this is it.  It just happens to be the same time where we've had a two-year college system with two major criminal investigations going on in it, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter up in Birmingham doing a deep investigation of the system, four chancellors in a year, and so, it's not been a good time."

"So, when the governor asked me to take on this job, obviously it was important, but it was important for two reasons - you've got to clean up the mess as quickly as you possibly can and then turn on a dime and take the system and ramp it up to meet these very strong, very legitimate workforce development needs, fully address adult education problems and get more people successfully through our two-year college transfer function to take advantage of all of these opportunities that the governor and all these people have created."

"These jobs that are coming into the state pay incredible wages.  I was in Tuscaloosa the other night and talked to the man that runs Nucor Steel.  He says I want you to guess what the average production person that works for me makes."

Byrne says in the end he was told the average production worker made $115,000 a year.  "But, in order to work there, you have to have a level of knowledge and skill training that's not just a GED.  It's a GED and an affiliated sophisticated set of postsecondary training skills."

"It's not what we call baccalaureate degrees, but I would challenge a lot of my friends with baccalaureate degrees from fine universities to see if they could figure out how to do it."

"There's the opportunity.  If we don't prepare our people to take advantage of those opportunities, all we've done is brought a bunch of jobs to this state that will be filled by people from Ohio and Michigan.  I haven't got anything against those folks, but they're not our folks."

"So, we've got to get our system up to that level at the same time we're responding to all the problems.  Every time I turn around I get a summons to go back over to the governor's office where he says, "We have another announcement."

"And I told him the last time, I said governor I'm running as fast as I can and he said, "Well son, you better learn how to run faster."  So, I'm telling all my staff that we've got to run faster."

Adult Education

"I think we have completely failed in adult education and we're going to have to completely rethink how we do it. "

"We're under serving, as compared to our southeastern peer states, and under performing by huge margins on the number of GEDs we're turning out.  We got what, $20 million from the feds and the state to do adult education.  You know how many GEDs we turned out last year - 2000.  We could send them to Harvard."

"So we're going to have to just completely rethink what we do with adult education.  Otherwise, we're never going to attack that 25% figure and oh, by the way, that feeds right into K-12 because we've got a 60% graduation rate in K-12.  What's happening?"

"The largest percentage of people that are dropping out of K-12 are guys and they're  black and white.  We're losing them.  They are turned off by the boring adult talking heads that are giving them abstract math, etc.  So, we've got to find a way to get those young people, primarily young men, quickly., I mean the moment they drop out, and get them into our adult ed program and feed them into one of our postsecondary workforce development programs and keep them involved instead of dropping out, getting in trouble, getting on drugs or being what I just call the lost boys."

"I was at Shelton in Tuscaloosa the other day and there was this elderly lady sitting there in the adult education section and I stopped and I said, 'Are you a student?'  And she said, 'No, I'm here with my great grandson.'  She didn't look old enough to have a grandson.  And I could see him through the window and I said, 'What's he doing?'   And she said, 'He's taking a practice GED test.'  And I said, 'Great.'  And she said, 'Well, he had some thoughts about it.  I had some thoughts about it.  They were different.  He's down here taking the practice test.'  I said, 'Good for you.'"

"You can imagine what she's had.  She's had that boy that lives with her.  He's hanging out.  He's laying around the house and she's tired of it.  She brought him down there and said by golly you come down here and get this GED.  Well, we shouldn't let him get to that point.  He shouldn't be in great grandmama's house laying around where she has to do that.  We need to get him before he gets to that point.  She was a sweet lady, but she's tough as nails.  How many of them have a tough-as-nails great grandmama that's going to do that?"

"So we need to get to them, but we can't stop there.  I mean you're not going to work for Nucor Steel if you don't have a high school diploma or GED and Nucor Steel is dying for these folks.  Alabama Power's dying for these folks.  We've got a shortage of linemen in Alabama.  The steel plant down in Mobile's dying for them.  Pfeiffer Wire in Tuscaloosa's dying for them, robotics folks up in north Alabama, just go all across the state."

"Well, you've got these people over here with the jobs, these young people over here 25 and younger floating around.  If we get them GEDs and some training and put them over here.  We not only help the employers, but more importantly - what have we done for them?  So, I'd say the state of adult education is just galling to me.  We've got to do something about it."

Byrne says the two-year system has failed "because we haven't proactively put ourselves out there.  We forgot what we're supposed to be doing. "

"We've got to go to the high schools, every high school in the state of Alabama.  We've got schools close enough to them where we can do that, and say okay, the moment you know one of your students has dropped out send them to us, send the information to us and we'll go get them.  The research shows the quicker we get them the higher the likelihood is we can get them to a GED relatively quickly, because they'll drop out in 9th, 10th and 11th grade and speed them through the GED and then get them in to some workforce training. "

"The two-year colleges have to become the senior partner in this, not sit back and wait for K-12 to send them to us.  Right now the deal is they send them to us and then we charge them for it.  You've got to send us your dropouts and we're going to charge you $1,000 for everyone you send.  Well, they don't send us very many.  So the first thing I think we need to do is say phooey with this $1,000 thing, send them to us, just get them to us.  If we get them a GED tell the high school you take credit for the GED, put it in your data.  All I want to do is make sure we quit growing that cohort of 20-25%.

So, do I have a plan?  Not yet, but we're working on it.  That's what I do between two and three in the morning.

Workforce development.

Byrne says the flood of jobs coming into the state is a "huge opportunity with major challenges.  Just the delivery system, which was probably adequate for what we had two or three years ago is totally inadequate."

"And so we've been meeting and working and we've still got some work to do, but I hope in the next few weeks we're going to give a new organization to our workforce development training system in Alabama that will bring all these different alphabet soup agencies together and give a very straightline way so we can go to an employer and say what do you need and tell us how many people we need to try to get to you.  So that workforce development piece is just going to tax our effort big time.  And, as the governor keeps going out creating more jobs it's going to become  more difficult."

"One of the other problems I faced when I came in is that we had a department that was depleted.  I had vacancies everywhere, so we've had to spend an enormous amount of our time hiring people.  I didn't have a human resources (HR) director."

"I still don't have an HR director, but I will in a couple of weeks.  I didn't have anybody in charge of workforce development.  We're the workforce development delivery vehicle and I get there and I say alright who's in charge of workforce development and everybody kind of looks at one another - I said oh, gosh, this is not good.  So we've got a really smart capable guy name Matthew Hughes who's running that and you will get to know his name more over the next couple of years."

"He started at the department, but he's from down in the Wiregrass area.  He's been down at Enterprise-Ozark and he's well known among technical educators in the state. He's one of those people who understands how to think outside the box and not just think about for-credit technical education, how to do the not-for-credit stuff that gets people the quick training they need."

"I had to hire him, I had to hire an HR director, a communications director.  I had to hire somebody to oversee the billions of dollars of assets we have in facilities.  We had nobody running facilities.  If a president wanted to go hire his good buddy to be an architect, somebody else's good buddy to be the construction manager they did it and wasted a lot of money.  So we've got somebody to do that so we've spent a lot of time just hiring people.

Too many two-year colleges?

Byrne was asked if there weren't simply too many two-year colleges and he responded with the following:

"I can get the system down to one college.  I can create the Alabama Community College and have all of these different sites, whether we call them main campuses or branch campuses or instructional sites.  I can have them all be branches of the Alabama Community College.  And there would be some administrative savings if we did that.  But, I tell you what.  We'd still have all the sites and we need all the sites, because that's where we're getting adult education out to where people live.  That's where we're getting workforce development training out where near employers are.  When I was on the Board, I was on the we've got to reduce the number of colleges kick.  Well, to get administrative savings it makes sense.  But there's a point beyond which its reducio ad absurdum.

I think what we've got to do is get to the point where we know what we're doing at each of our sites and make sure we're doing it efficiently and effectively.  And I'm not convinced.  I'm certain that we're not.  And part of what Matthew Hughes has got to do is go around the state and start making sure we at least do workforce development, because that's like triage right now.  How do I get 29,000 construction workers trained to start the TK site in the next several months.  How do I get 100 new people trained as linemen every year for Alabama Power and another 100 for the Rural Electric Coop, TVA etc."

"Ed Castille (at AIDT) is our guru about new and expanding industry and that is hard to do, but it is a piece of cake compared to trying to get the workforce training out there for existing industry and there's a more critical need there.  That's where Matthew Hughes has got such a critical job.  When Thyssen Krup comes into Mobile, they'll skim the cream off the top and then all the existing employers that have been our good citizens for years are going to say what about me, I've lost my best worker.  We've got to backfill for them.  So, are we overbuilt?  I don't think so.  But we can have that argument another time."

Reported by:  Helen Hammons