Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said it’s time for the state to address its aging infrastructure and education issues if it is going to be truly prepared to recruit 21st century jobs.
Speaking to state and local economic developers at the Economic Development Association of Alabama’s summer conference, Ivey said infrastructure and education are two problems the state has avoided for too long.
“Let us remember that leadership is not defined by what we know, but rather by what we’re willing to do with what we know,” she said. “As leaders we must see the problems, we must be willing to tackle them even if it means getting criticism in the process. Because the moment we sacrifice doing what is right for what is popular, at that moment we fail to lead.”
After praising the efforts of economic developers who have helped her announce $1 billion in new capital investment and about 4,000 in announced jobs since taking office,” Ivey hit on education and infrastructure as challenges to economic development.
“Just as pre-K is a solid foundation for our children, a robust infrastructure is foundational for all that we do in economic development,” Ivey said. “Y’all know like I do that our state infrastructure is aging. Funds are not there to repair what needs fixing, much less to build new bridges, roads, much less airports and railways. In some places in our state, a school bus has to go at least 12 miles out of its way to avoid going over a dangerous bridge that won’t hold them up.”
Political leaders have pushed the state’s infrastructure needs in the past, but have failed to gain any traction with funding fixes. Ivey said the state no longer has the luxury of avoiding the problem.
“Yes, we have an aging infrastructure in Alabama and it needs attention,” she said. “In fact, I will just be very clear to say that we must invest more in our roads and bridges. To invest in our infrastructure is to invest in families, our safety and we invest in the growth of the state’s economy. We cannot wait any longer, folks. Our infrastructure needs attention.”
She said it can no longer be about politics, but it must be about doing what is necessary.
“I share with you that there may be times in your career that you will be called on to make a decision that might not be very popular, but you go ahead and make it anyway because it’s the right thing to do,” Ivey said. “It is simply the right thing to do.”
The governor sees infrastructure as a key component in her goal of giving every Alabamian a good-paying job.
“Goodness knows that there is no doubt that our state has many challenges facing us,” Ivey said. “But I’ll tell you what, a steady job, a good-paying job goes a long way to solving some of those problems.”
A former director of the Alabama Development Office, the precursor to the Alabama Commerce Department, Ivey has made it clear that economic development is a cornerstone of her current office.
“Encouraging new investment in Alabama and encouraging existing firms to expand, that is the mission and the theme of my administration,” she said.
“We do this by recruiting 21st century jobs,” she added. “We’ve done a good job of recruiting jobs of yesteryear and we’re doing good so far, but, y’all, we’ve got to pick up now and recruit some of these 21st century jobs. This involves my staff, my cabinet and the governor. I am committed to working with you guys to attracting and locating 21st century jobs.”
Ivey said worker training has to be a component of the state’s education system and that even investing in Pre-K is an investment in economic development.
“We must be strategic in how we spend our education dollars,” she said.
“How well a child reads by the third grade is directly related to how well that child will do later in life,” Ivey continued. “In fact, a student that is not reading at third-grade level at the end of the third grade is four times less likely to graduate. And we know that high school dropouts are likely to go to prison. In fact, statistics related to reading proficiency in the third grade are used to determine how many beds will be needed in Alabama prisons.”
Ivey, a former teacher, said investing in teachers and coordinating teaching methods through third grade will pay off by helping to address the state’s workforce needs.
“Our children deserve our very best so that they can achieve their very best,” she said. “And with a strong start, Alabama students are more likely to have a strong finish in the workforce.”
Ivey said there are more than 4,000 computer-related jobs in the state paying an average of $82,000 per year available now but with nobody to fill them.
Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said Ivey has made her focus on economic development very clear.
“Within less than 12 hours after she had been sworn into office, she was meeting with me to talk about economic development and our project activity,” Canfield said. “I think the first words out of her mouth was she was going to be supporting good jobs for Alabamians and real career opportunities as one of her primary focuses and she’s done a good job of staying focused in that regard.”
Canfield said it became very apparent when Ivey traveled to the Paris Air Show.
“At the Paris Air Show, she met with 18 CEOs in 22 meetings over a two-day period on Monday and Tuesday, the first real two days of the air show, our best two days ever,” he said. “Gov. Ivey really was able to communicate very effectively the strategy of the state and the interest that the state had in those individual companies. And it didn’t really matter if they were existing companies that already have operations in the state or whether she was talking with a company that she had never met with before, she was on message and she was very effective.”
Ivey said she went to the Paris Air Show to foster new relationships with aerospace companies not familiar with Alabama and solidify relationships with the companies already here.
The high point was when the CEOs of the existing firms attributed their success in Alabama to “the quality and productivity of our employees.”
“Y’all, that is beautiful news,” Ivey said. “When we believe it, that’s one thing, but to have 18 global CEOs independently say the same thing, that is a high mark we can all be very proud of.”
Ivey does not dwell on the successes for long, however.
“I’m proud to report to you today that some things are working for us,” she said. “Last week we just announced that our unemployment rate dropped to 4.6 percent and more folks are working today than at any other time in the last 10 years. That is good news.”
But she quickly turned her attention to the rest of the story.
“Now, all of that is good news and we’re all proud as punch of it, but let me just tell you that the other side of that is we still have 100,000 folks who want to work and don’t have a job,” she said. “Y’all, these are our neighbors, our friends, folks we know – these are good folks who want to work.”
She said it’s what drives her.
“My goal is for every Alabamian who wants to have a job to have one – but not just any job,” she said. “I want our people to be well-trained, qualified and well-paid for the jobs they have so they can better provide for themselves and their family and be productive members of the society.”
Ivey said she sees infrastructure, education and economic development as inseparable.
“I envision an Alabama where our economic opportunity abounds, where our children are well-educated and prepared to enter the workforce and where the wheels of commerce move freely over a well-funded infrastructure system,” Ivey said. “I pledge to you today as your governor I will not be content to maintain status quo.
“We steadied the ship of state,” she continued. “Now we will steer it towards sustainability and progress. When my time as governor comes to a close, whenever that may be, I hope to leave this great state better than when I found it because I have not shied away from facing our challenges.”