Birmingham Economy’s Prospects? Study Under Wraps Takes Exacting Look

A nursing student assesses a patient in a training exercise. (Source: College of DuPage)

In January, Alabama’s Department of Labor reported online help-wanted ads for 2,089 openings for registered nurses in the state. Only truck drivers were more highly sought.

In metro Birmingham, the help-wanted website listed more than 600 openings for jobs with the keyword “nurse” in early April.

Still, with the unemployment rate at a low 3.5 percent, 18,711 people in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area were officially unemployed in March of this year, according to estimates from the state Labor Department.

That kind of mismatch between jobs available and people seeking work is typically the kind of workforce issue addressed by Burning Glass Technologies, according to its website.

In Birmingham, a group of influential organizations is focusing on findings about the local economy from a Burning Glass data-based study. The study is complete but has not yet been released for the public to see.

United Way of Central Alabama, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham initiated the study. Lynn Lowe of Markstein, a marketing agency now designated to handle communications about the study, said the plan is to share the findings with “select groups” in the spring and have “a larger public rollout” in the summer. Lowe said The Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama, an initiative of United Way, worked with a research group “to generate important information and recommendations regarding Greater Birmingham’s economic future and talent needs.”

 Comments About Study

Representatives of several groups declined to talk about the study findings until its official release. A spokesman for the Birmingham Business Alliance indicated that organization is now involved with the study’s presentation but would not comment on its content until official rollouts. An Alabama Power Company spokesman said, “We are aware of the study.” A source familiar with the process said goals are to keep disparate organizations working from a shared list of talking points and to consider redesigning and renaming the study’s report.

Josh Carpenter, now the City of Birmingham’s director of its Office of Economic Development and formerly with UAB, said he would talk about “why I think it (the study) is important and why people need to read it.” He said he helped shape the study while at UAB.

“Burning Glass’ study is an objective lens to look at (Birmingham’s) workforce and economy,” he said. “It’s an honest appraisal, an objective one.”

He said the study reports threats as well as other findings. It examines how jobs in the Birmingham area are aligned with skills of the people who live there. It also reports on “different elements of the economy critical for growth and the aspect of dealing with trade.”

A report the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama conducted for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham found growth of employment in the Birmingham-Hoover area was near zero for the 2000-2016 period.

“This data is really important, not just to read but to act upon to catalyze public-private partnerships,” Carpenter said. Burning Glass on its website says its studies “allow policymakers to understand and plan for changes in the job market.”

Looking for Nurses

For now, Dr. Linda Moneyham, a professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs at the UAB School of Nursing, said that her school and others across the state are doing everything they can to keep up with the increasing demand for nurses.

“We enroll 144 students into the program twice each year, or 288 annually,” she said, adding that the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus and Auburn University also have similar numbers. The state’s other universities have smaller numbers of nursing students.

UAB tries to connect with high school students as early as it can, to find those who would have an interest in nursing and health care occupations.

“One of the best programs we have is called the Dean’s Scholar program, and any high school student who has a GPA of 3.2 in certain things (qualifies). If they become a Dean’s Scholar as a freshman and they maintain that grade level, they have a guaranteed seat in the nursing program,” Moneyham said. “That number of students using that is growing immensely, because getting into the nursing school now is very competitive.”

“We also have an accelerated program for people who have a bachelor’s degree but who want to make a career change,” Moneyham added. That program has even attracted attorneys and engineers; it turns out nurses in a much shorter time than a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program.

So far, metro Birmingham supplies plenty of applicants for degrees in nursing and other health care occupations and is able to keep many of them in the area because of its status as the state’s largest medical center. However, many take advantage of a growing trend of “travel nursing” — temporary positions posted by staffing agencies in various locations, such as a three-month job in Houston. Those positions typically pay more than standard ones.

Universities are straining to keep up with the demand.

“I can’t give specific numbers without revealing specific hospitals, which they don’t want out there (in public). But let’s say that we could send every graduate we have to the hospitals and they would still have openings,” Moneyham said.

Simply increasing the output of the university programs isn’t an option, because nursing students also must find placements at clinical sites, such as hospitals, doing training in the field.