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Ramona Hill, Manufacturing Community coordinator for the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, talks about the overall nature of manufacturing in southwest Alabama, and expands upon how a private and public collaboration is driving sustained growth in what is one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the Southeastern section of the United States.
The manufacturing community application was submitted with the University of South Alabama as the lead under the auspices of the Partners for Growth, Believe in the Future Initiative. This initiative of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce brings together more than 160 business leaders, public agencies, and educational institutions to keep the region by attracting more businesses and developing more jobs.
The partners actively engaged in the development and submission of the application include the Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT), Alabama Technology Network (ATN), Bishop State Community College, Gulf State Shipbuilding Consortium, City of Mobile, Mobile County Commission, Mobile County Public School System, Mobile Works, Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council. The proposal was a collaboration of the City of Mobile, Mobile County Commission, Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and the University of South Alabama and was written under the umbrella of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce’s Partners for Growth Consortium. Partners for Growth is the fundraising arm of the Chamber that is made up of over 170 industrial, political, and community members.
As for the actual proposal, Hill says one of the main goals for her region is to balance the presence and impact of industry across the eight surrounding counties, which include Baldwin, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Mobile, Monroe, and Washington county. “Only two of these counties can be considered metropolitan, while the other six are quite rural,” she says, adding, “Our goal is to ensure that the individuals, particularly those living in these rural areas, have a hand in how we shape our manufacturing future, because many of them contribute significantly to the Gulf Coast shipbuilding’s labor shed.”
Tackling the shipbuilding industry is the community’s chief objective, given the concentrated presence of world-leading shipbuilders—from US Navy vessels to commercial cargo ships and tugboats—and their strong impact upon the local economy. “We are using the IMCP designation to specifically design efforts within the infrastructure of how we support our shipbuilding industry, because we know that once we do so there, we can then take the knowledge we have gained and export it to other growing industries in our area, such as aerospace, forest products, and metals.”
It’s a strategy that Hill, a career engineer with lengthy stints in shipbuilding and paper production in addition to running her own consulting practice, feels can lead to a highly diversified economic future for the region. “If we can build a model in the shipbuilding industry where we effectively have complete awareness of all the ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ that contribute to the sector’s success, then we feel enhancing other industries will be much easier and achieved much more efficiently.”
Critical to this goal is the successful creation and sustainment of a skilled workforce to take the place of the soon-to-be retiring Baby Boomer-era employees. “The University of South Alabama, our community and technical colleges, and the local K-12 programs have been working hard to refine and improve existing academic clusters in our region to ensure that a greater number of individuals are taking interest in a manufacturing career, and that those graduating have the skill sets and certifications to step in and contribute right away.”
And yet, looking beyond the Southwest Alabama region and its institutions, Hill says another important step for her community was attending the IMCP Summit held in Washington D.C. last October. “We were able to come together with the eleven other designated communities and the federal players involved, amongst many others, and share our practices and philosophies about how we planned to improve manufacturing in our respective regions,” she says, adding, “By discussing strategies with these other communities and agencies, we were able to learn quite a lot about how we could perhaps take their knowledge and apply such lessons to our own situation.”
It’s a level of progress and collaboration in manufacturing that Hill has never seen before, but one that has her very excited about the future of manufacturing in southwest Alabama, and the rest of the country by extension. She says that in the face of increased business beginning to pour into the state, the IMCP designation and their specific proposal tied to it has them set to thrive in the future. “There’s a very bright future for manufacturing here in southwest Alabama, we just have to make sure we’re ready for it,” she says, but adds, “However, I think the combination of a strong collaboration between our public and private sectors, and an intensified focus on our academic institutions and their role in facilitating a skilled, local workforce has us ready to step up and meet the challenge.”