To heighten the interest of Alabama’s Black Belt region, students in forestry careers and officials for the Alabama Forestry Foundation have had to address an important realization: many young people aren’t seeing the forest for the trees.
To increase interest in forestry and meet the industry’s workforce needs, Alabama officials are taking measures to expose students to the possibilities. The foundation has implemented the Black Belt Initiative in an effort to provide job opportunity awareness while enhancing math and science skills to students in Alabama’s rural communities – specifically the Black Belt region that stretches across the southern portion of the state. It’s known for its rich, black topsoil and an abundance of forests.
“We’re always looking for ways to expand education and public outreach,” says Ashley Smith, director of education programs for the Alabama Forestry Foundation.
A couple of things happened to create the Black Belt Initiative. Companies started saying their future workforce in these rural areas are not moving back home and sticking around. They’re leaving for better job opportunities in other places.
“Alabama’s forestry workforce has been dwindling. It’s an aging workforce, and many will be retiring within the next five to eight years. That’s what led to the beginning of the Black Belt Initiative. It started with the promotion of solutions to these problems.”
Reaching Kids Early
With 23 million acres of forestland, Alabama is one of the nation’s leaders in the forestry industry. Whether they’re used for producing paper, lumber or many other products, the state’s forests are plentiful with thousands of job opportunities for residents.
A key to moving more young people in the direction of forestry careers is to teach them early on about not only the usefulness of forests, but also their benefits to everyday life.
Math and Science are Key
The Black Belt Initiative is aligned with the Alabama Forestry Foundation’s workforce development initiative known as Forestry Works. In its first three years, it has progressed from a public awareness campaign to an action program by strengthening math and science skills – part of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiative – in schools. The program launched at Thomasville Elementary School in Thomasville and at J.U. Blacksher in Uriah, according to Smith.
“In both of those areas, forestry is very strong,” she says. “We determined that if we wanted students to consider a career in forestry, then they have to know what was out there. But we also wanted them to strengthen their math and science skills.
“We partnered with teachers and coaches at these schools, making sure they had materials they needed and training – whether it’s additional training in math and science through the Alabama STEM initiative or some of the forestry education workshops that we offer every year. We just try to do lots of things to boost the forest industry and address the future problems we expect in job placement.”