You could feel it in the atmosphere.

Excitement. Enthusiasm. Curiosity.

And maybe a little nervousness?

No, not nervousness. More like anticipation.

“I knew what to expect. I researched the company,” said Brian Thomas. “And I went in confident. I wasn’t nervous at all – just ready to start working.”

Thomas, only moments before, was one of 20 recent graduates and rising seniors from Birmingham City Schools who were connected with paid apprenticeships at some of the area’s top employers. Those connections took place following several rounds of interviews. Students rotated from table to table, speaking with different companies, sharing their career goals and showing employers the skills and benefits they could bring to their workplace.

The format – think speed-dating-meets-workforce-development – was ideal, offering each employer and student the chance to get a feel for which workplace would be the best fit.

Questions were friendly but strategic. Students were looking for signs that the employers could help them reach their professional goals; employers were looking to ensure the types of jobs they offer would match what the students were seeking.

Students rotated from table to table interviewing with major employers. Participating companies represented four industry sectors: finance & insurance, healthcare & life sciences, energy & engineering, and digital technology. The interviews were held at the Birmingham Negro Southern League Museum, which honors the legacy of African-American baseball players and business leaders who formed the groundbreaking league in 1920. Many of the league’s players came from Birmingham’s industrial teams.

Before long, the connections were made.

It’s all part of a new program called Birmingham Promise.

Now in its pilot stage, Birmingham Promise is an initiative of Mayor Randall Woodfin in conjunction with school leaders and area employers. The idea is to give young people on-the-job exposure to rewarding career paths. The apprenticeships will last for a few months, equipping students with valuable skills and long-term connections. Students can then build on their experience as they continue their education – or enter the workforce full-time.

Following this summer’s pilot, the program is expected to grow and reach more students beginning this fall.

Students shared with Birmingham Promise organizers which industry sectors were of the most interest to them. Each was then assigned to a handful of interviews with companies representing those sectors. Organizers then used the interviews to determine which students would be paired with which companies for summer apprenticeships.

Thomas, who just graduated with honors from Huffman High School, was encouraged by his mother to pursue an apprenticeship at Regions. At first, he didn’t realize how many careers intersect with banking.

“I was like, ‘Regions is just a bank,’” he recalled. But then, “I learned more about the corporate business and the other opportunities that they have – whether it’s lawyers, IT development and other areas. There are many careers you can get into at Regions besides just the bank aspect.”

Technology resonates most with Thomas. Following the rounds of interviews, he and the 19 others in the pilot program lined up, waiting to be formally paired with employers who had been designated as a match. Think National-Signing-Day-meets-career-training.

Thomas got what he came for – an apprenticeship with Regions. His mother is encouraged to see a clearer path between schools and employers.

“It’s like having a career fair in the school. But this time, they get that on-the-job training,” Laquita Thomas said. “They are able to figure out, ‘This is exactly what I want to do.’ It gives them that next level of hope – that they’re not just dreams, they’re aspirations.”

Birmingham has always been the Magic City – a city of promise. These students who are here today represent Birmingham’s true promise.
Randall Woodfin, Mayor of Birmingham, Ala.

Mayor Woodfin celebrated with each apprentice as they were matched with employers.

“Birmingham has always been the Magic City – a city of promise,” Woodfin said. “The promise has always been more than our steel mills; it’s always been more than our startups or our infrastructure. It has always been its people. These students who are here today represent Birmingham’s true promise.”

Ana Gregory is another example of Birmingham’s true promise.

“This is so exciting. All the energy here is just amazing,” the Huffman grad said as she scanned the room.

Speaking of energy, that’s the line of work she’s pursuing. Specifically, mechanical engineering and how it complements the energy industry.

“Since I was 7, I’ve been building – destroying, as my mom would call it – and putting back together a lot of things, from vacuums to flashlights,” she said. “I just love being hands-on. You name it, if I can mold it into something, I will do it.”

Her employer match for the apprenticeship? Alabama Power.

“I’m just super-excited to meet people who are successful in what they do so I can learn from them,” Gregory said. “Meeting people that are actually offering me a job to learn about what they do, and being able to have hands-on experience, I’m super-grateful and thankful that I’m able to be here.”

Mayor Randall Woodfin said Birmingham Promise is about providing new opportunities to thrive in today’s economy, adding, “We have to change the status quo. We need to change our approach to preparing our builders of the future.” Students in the inaugural class of Birmingham Promise were paired with companies such as Regions Bank, Alabama Power, Shipt, Brasfield & Gorrie, and more. Additional information can be found here.

Leroy Abrahams, head of Community Affairs for Regions, said there are several reasons for employers to get involved in workforce-development programs.

“Having really good, well-trained people is critical, and it’s worth it for a business to invest in that,” Abrahams said. “Because they’re investing in their own success.”

Not only does Birmingham Promise connect students with future careers – and employers with future professionals – career training helps the city, and its people, remain competitive.

“We live in a global economy,” Abrahams added. “So for the students who we’re speaking with today, and the companies that are interviewing them, it’s not only a matter of how competitive we are in Birmingham, it’s about how competitive we are across the state, across the country and beyond. That’s why it’s so important for companies to invest both in the workforce of today and the workforce of the future.”

In addition, Abrahams pointed to Regions’ ongoing commitment to fostering more inclusive prosperity.

“This is one of the most powerful ways we can make a difference as an organization,” he said. “The employers who are here today are connecting people with opportunities to grow and succeed. This is creating not only short-term benefits, but long-term benefits that I believe can impact Birmingham for generations.”

Indeed, Birmingham Promise is addressing an urgent community need. Mayor Woodfin shared numbers that underline the importance of new opportunities. Specifically, he said:

  • 50% of students in Birmingham City Schools live in poverty
  • 40% of the city’s potential workers are on the sidelines and not in the labor force
  • Of the 54% of Birmingham students who pursue college, they are carrying, on average, $31,000 in debt.
  • The city has the 16th highest youth unemployment rate in America.

The numbers can be discouraging.

But by taking a united approach, the city, the school system and major employers are working to reverse trends.

“Together, we will build the infrastructure that our schools and our employers need to scale youth apprenticeships,” Mayor Woodfin said. “This type of program – this pilot apprenticeship – will lay the groundwork for a larger Birmingham Promise that will combine secondary and post-secondary apprenticeships with college scholarships to develop pathways for higher-quality jobs in our community.”