Governor Announces High School Graduation Rate Goal is Ahead of Schedule and Coalition of Soft Skills Workplace Training for K-16 Students

Alabama’s goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020 is ahead of schedule, officials announced Thursday. Governor Robert Bentley said the 2014 graduation rate was 86 percent, a rate that state School Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice said was not expected until 2018.

At a Capitol news conference, Bentley credited Bice, the state school board, teachers, principals, “great schools across our state,” and students. Bentley is president of the state school board.

“We are absolutely delighted to see the graduation rate making these kinds of unprecedented gains,” Bice said. “It is the result of teachers focusing on identifying the specific needs of students, removing barriers to learning, and helping students meet their goals.”

The graduation rate has increased from 72 percent in 2011, to 75 percent in 2012, 80 percent in 2013, and 86 percent this year. A 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 is a goal of PLAN 2020, the education reform measure adopted by the state school board in 2012.

Bice cited Business Council of Alabama President and CEO William J. Canary and Jay Love, Chairman for Finance for the Business Education Alliance of Alabama (BEA) who attended the announcement. The BEA commissioned the study that shows that a 90 percent graduation rate has an economic value of $430 million, comparable to a major industry locating in the state every year.

The BCA created the non-profit BEA education reform effort that was announced at the BCA’s 2013 summer Governmental Affairs Conference.

“The BCA and the business community applaud the graduation efforts by Alabama’s education community that are increasing the high school graduation rate,” Canary said. “Not only students when they become employees who continue technical training or college but also businesses that employ them will benefit from more high school graduates.”

Bice also said that a 90 percent high school graduate rate will produce $68 million more in wages than a 60 percent rate each year.

Bice said that education reform also means redefining a high school graduate to ensure a transition, if chosen by students, directly into the work place or to advanced training. “We asked (business) what is missing and how can we recalibrate,” he said.

New standards will align students for college and career readiness, he said.

Bentley used the graduation rate news conference to recruit education to guide a key component of workforce development – ensuring that students possess soft, or workplace, skills.

“Today I’m calling on educational training to provide these skills,” Bentley said. “The future economic success of Alabama depends on our ability to provide a workforce that is world-class, a pool of highly skilled workers who possess a comprehensive set of skills and who are committed to getting the job done.”

Recommendations were the creation of Bentley’s Alabama Workforce Council. “(Businesses) have told us that they need a greater pool of workers with soft skills, actually they are hard skills, the hardest to learn, I call them essential workplace skills,” Bentley said.

The skills include a work ethic, a good attitude, effective communication with co-workers and supervisors, and effective listening skills.

Zeke Smith, chairman of the Alabama Workforce Council and executive vice president for external affairs of Alabama Power Co., a member of the BCA, said the importance of soft skills cannot be overemphasized.

“Once employed it never ends,” he said. “Without mastering soft skills you may never experience the opportunities that companies offer for growth.”

The assembled audience included school board members and the leaders of K-12, postsecondary, and four-year education.

“We in K-12 and postsecondary education stand ready always to make sure we in Alabama have a workforce our industrial concerns need and that we are prepared to expand when the need arises,” said state School Board vice president Ella Bell.

Postsecondary Education Chancellor Dr. Mark Heinrich said businesses tell him they need more workers with essential workplace skills. “We have heard you loudly and clearly,” Heinrich said.

“There is indisputable evidence the successful employees must possess the essential workplace skills, a good work ethic, a positive attitude, self-control, good communication skills, time management, and belief in one’s own worth,” he said. “Studies show that more than 85 percent of workers who lose jobs do not lack technical or hard skills but lack essential workplace skills.”

He has directed two-year colleges to develop workplace skill modules in education and technical divisions, to train staff on the importance of serving as role models in workplace skills, and for college presidents to emphasize the skills.

The state school board requires a credit in career preparedness, what it means to work, interview for a job, what business is looking for, and how financial literacy can contribute to the employee, state, and nation’s wellbeing.

Dr. Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama System and chair of the Alabama Council of Colleges and University Presidents, said a seamless education system includes more than education or learning technical skills.

“I can attest from personal experience that the graduates who are most successful in obtaining jobs and retaining them are those with soft skills,” Witt said. “We recognize that learning soft skills is not something that comes after the end of the educational education process but is something that is an integral process of it from day one.”

-Dana Beyerle