Without a doubt, the biggest issue our state is facing is creating jobs and getting our economy back on track.
Recent reports show that our statewide unemployment rate is at 6.3 percent, which represents more than 134,000 Alabamians who can’t find a job.
We have seen thousands of jobs leave the state, while the jobs that we have been creating do not pay a livable wage or come with benefits.
Alabama’s textile industry – one of the largest segments of our economy – has been decimated, while plants, mills and factories across the state have been closing shop.
Recently, International Paper announced that it is closing its mill in Lawrence County – one of three mills owned by International Paper in Alabama. This closure will cost the state 1,100 jobs.
Our construction industry is hemorrhaging jobs at a faster rate than nearly every other state in the country. In 2011, we lost 2,700 construction jobs in one month alone!
Under Gov. Bob Riley’s leadership, Alabama granted over a billion dollars in tax incentives to ThyssenKrupp to bring a steel plant to Mobile. After less than two years in operation, ThyssenKrupp closed the plant and is now trying to sell it to the highest bidder.
Over the past three years, our state has lost nearly 6,500 education jobs, including 2,000 teachers, and lost 3,000 state employee jobs. State leaders have celebrated these job loses, which they call “rightsizing.” But these state leaders don’t seem to understand that these educators and state employees are customers and taxpayers that our economy relies on.
The loss of these jobs has had a devastating impact on our economy. What makes it worse is that what few jobs we are creating are not the kind of jobs that pay a livable wage or come with benefits like health insurance or a retirement plan.
For example, Medicaid enrollment in Alabama has gone up 20 percent over the past five years, which means that the jobs we are creating do not come with benefits like health insurance.
Another indicator is the rise in the number of Alabamians receiving food stamps. Over the past five years, food stamp enrollment has increased 61 percent, which means that the jobs we are creating don’t pay enough to feed a family of four.
At the same time, state leaders have cut funding for education by more than 20 percent over the past five years.
Alabama’s economy is struggling because we have relied on low-skill, low-wage jobs as the backbone of our economy. Now these jobs are being shipped overseas or are being phased out of existence.
The jobs that are being created in this country now require a higher degree of education and training. That is why so many businesses look at Alabama and then move on.
With one of the largest high school dropout rates in the country, and with fewer than 24 percent of Alabamians holding a college degree, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit business and industry to Alabama. These businesses need a workforce that is able to do the high-skilled jobs they offer, and that requires education.
If we are going to get our economy back on track, we must do three things.
First, we need to use targeted tax incentives that come with job commitments and allow us to get our money back if the business does not bring the jobs it promises or does not keep them here for a minimum of 10 years. We need to go back to the way we recruited businesses like Mercedes and Hyundai, instead of the way we recruited ThyssenKrupp.
Second, we need to invest in our infrastructure. This creates jobs today and helps recruit and expand business for the long-term. By improving our roads, bridges, sewers and water systems, and electrical systems, we can create jobs immediately. But doing this will also update our infrastructure to accommodate newer technologies and make doing business more efficient and affordable, and that makes Alabama more attractive to potential employers we are trying to recruit.
Third, and most important of all, we need to return to investing in our public education and vocational schools. This is a business-friendly state, and nobody works harder or has a better work ethic than the people of Alabama. But without the right tools, they cannot get or perform the jobs that are being created.
If we are going to create more jobs, we have to give our workers and our children the tools to succeed. And there is no tool more important than a good head on their shoulders.