BBA program aims to retain area's skilled workforce

Stopping the brain drain

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A new report finds 43 percent of local college students leave the Birmingham area after earning a bachelor's degree, and 53 percent of doctoral students move following graduation.

This "brain drain" is a problem for employers who struggle to fill middle-management positions, particularly in the high growth industries economic leaders want to target.

"You can do all you can to sell your company, but you can't make someone fall in love with the city," said Brittney Smith of the Birmingham Business Alliance.

As the BBA's point person for workforce development and retention, Smith likens the challenge to keep high-skilled workers to recruiting the country's top football players to play for Auburn or Alabama.

"We try to encourage authentic relationships, that connected feeling, that stickiness [to] keep these good quality folks here in Birmingham," she said.

For Raleigh, N.C. native Michael Harrison, forging a connection to the Magic City wasn't completely organic. A BBA program called OnBoard Birmingham targeted the Product Manager at tech start-up Fleetio, in hopes of keeping him in the area by helping him put down roots.

"OnBoard, I think, helped me integrate with the community here in a sense where I feel like a member of the working professional class of Birmingham," says Harrison, who completed the program last fall.

Harrison moved to Birmingham in 2015 to work for Fleetio, a fleet management software company that operates in 55 different countries. Since that time, Harrison has become a member of the Birmingham Art Museum, learned about the history of iconic landmarks such as Sloss Furnace, experienced the revitalization of areas such as Avondale and Railroad Park and taught computer science classes part-time at Ramsay and Woodlawn High Schools. The BBA's OnBoard Birmingham program played a major part in helping Harrison integrate so thoroughly with the community.

"Birmingham was one of those cities I never really thought I'd end up choosing but now, with [the help of OnBoard] they've created a fan and I tell people in other cities about the great things happening here," said Harrison.

Keeping talent like Harrison in the area matters a lot in efforts to attract new industries to the region.

According to the report commissioned by several economic groups in the area, the fields projected to grow the most rely largely on the availability of high-skilled workers. Only 21 percent of Birmingham's workforce demand is for high-skilled occupations, while neighboring metros demonstrate a significantly larger concentration of high-skill jobs. In particular, the "Building (IT) Together" report notes Birmingham's workforce leans heavily towards low-skilled jobs (those that do not necessarily require a college degree).

"Atlanta did not turn around in a day. Nashville did not become the Nashville that we know today overnight," emphasized Smith. "People started talking about [those cities]. They talked about the great experiences they were having there, the opportunities that were afforded to them. That same thing is happening here in Birmingham."

Smith points towards the affordable cost of housing, great restaurants and cultural events, as well as a community still small enough for one person to make a big impact as attractors for the region.

The OnBoard program connects talented local workers not only to these Birmingham attractions but also to fellow young-professionals who might be experiencing all the area has to offer for the first time.

"It's the perfect place to build authentic relationships and in the long-term, that is very beneficial to employers," said Smith.

Click here to learn more about participating in the OnBoard Program.

Click here to learn more about the "Building (IT) Together" findings.

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