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Manufacturing is big business in Alabama, where a new partnership seeks to strengthen the relationship between community colleges and industry.

Earlier this month Kay Ivey, the state’s governor, announced that the Alabama Community College System is teaming up with the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council to offer industry certifications. Alabama will be the first state to offer the council’s certification across its public colleges, state officials said.

A significant number of people in the state -- about 22 percent of the state’s work force -- are in manufacturing and transportation, said Jeff Lynn, vice chancellor of work force and economic development for the community college system. Yet more coordination was needed, he said.

“Around the state, I didn’t see a steady, strong work-force pipeline plan,” said Lynn.

Out of 2.1 million working adults in Alabama, he said about 450,000 are employed in manufacturing, logistics and transportation.

Alabama decided to buy a statewide license, which will benefit the 24 community colleges, starting in January. Officials from the system declined to comment on the price or to give an estimate for how much the state paid to partner with the council.

The MSSC certification includes the Certified Production Technician and Certified Logistics Technician certificates, which address front-line material handling and distribution workers in supply-chain facilities like factories and warehouses.

“In the South, there has been a focus on attracting manufacturers to facilities there, and the Southern states have been quite successful at that,” said Bryan Wilson, director of the work force data quality campaign for the National Skills Coalition. “Their strategy has been focused on skills training and that they will provide a middle-skills work force.”

The nation’s largest work-force gap exists in middle-skills jobs, which require more than a high school degree but less than a four-year degree.

According to the coalition, between 2014 and 2024, 48 percent of job openings nationally will be of the middle-skill variety. In Alabama, that figure is 55 percent.

The colleges will continue to offer other industry certifications in career and work-force programs, in addition to the council’s certifications.

“It’s a phenomenal curriculum and the standards we need to teach as a baseline,” Lynn said, adding that the state chose to work with the council after talking to business leaders.

The council’s standards initially were created by a group of companies because K-12 schools and colleges weren’t training enough skilled workers, he said, adding that they address four specific areas -- safety, maintenance, quality and manufacturing process, and production.

“It’s interesting that Alabama went with MSSC,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center for Education and Skills at New America, adding that more states are working with industry credentialing bodies to negotiate lower assessment costs for their students, or to get the data on who did or didn’t pass them.

McCarthy said Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee also are bargaining with industry groups on behalf of students in career and technical education programs.

Eventually the credentials in Alabama will be available to students through dual-enrollment programs, sometimes as early as ninth grade. The Legislature provides $11.3 million a year for career and work-force dual-enrollment programs, Lynn said.

The two-year system will pick up the certification assessment cost for the student and the high school teachers, Lynn said, adding that the program has already rolled out at some high schools and colleges. The cost for community college students is included as tuition and would be covered by federal financial aid or other scholarships and grants, he said.

“We need to do a great job of providing companies what they need,” Lynn said. “The hard part is the marketing … so parents understand their son or daughter can have a great career in manufacturing.”

As for dual-enrollment programs, those that are focused on career training have become popular with both Republicans and Democrats.

“In the career and training education space, there is a bipartisan consensus for creating opportunities for high school students so after high school they move to a certificate or applied degree,” McCarthy said. “These programs they’re going into aren’t four-year degree programs, they’re career focused and shortened.”

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