University degree not the only pathway to great careers in Alabama

Many of us grew up with the idea that the only way to get a good career in Alabama was via a four-year college degree or higher. For years, we accepted this as the gospel. Little consideration was given to the particular type of degree or the real-world applications for it. A university degree was viewed as a panacea for employment and success.

While seeking a university degree is admirable, it isn’t a necessity for a well-paying job or a promising career. A recent survey of online job ads found that of the 39,514 open positions in Alabama, most do NOT require a four-year degree. What they DO require, however, are applicants who are qualified both fundamentally and technically.

The Two-Part Skills Gap

The most foundational qualifications are identical across all industries and are commonly called “employability skills.” Showing up on time, being drug free, working as a member of a team and demonstrating a willingness to learn are critical to every company. 

Technical skill requirements are more industry specific and can come in the form of on-the-job training, industry-recognized credentials, stackable certificates, or associates’ degrees from one of Alabama’s outstanding community colleges.

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, nine of the top 10 jobs that are in most demand require less than a university degree. The top 10 in-demand jobs, the number of openings and their average hourly wage are:

  • Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers — 2,882, $19.28
  • Registered nurses — 2,481, $27.71
  • Retail salespeople — 1,285, $13.19
  • Customer service representatives — 698, $15.76
  • Maintenance and repair workers — 627, $18.52
  • Computer user support specialists — 562, $22.61
  • Industrial engineers — 605, $41.84
  • Software developers — 524, $45.44
  • Light truck and delivery service drivers — 443, $14.61
  • Sales representatives (wholesale and manufacturing) not technical or scientific — 431, $30.58

As you can see from that list, these are well-paying jobs, and the only job for which a four-year degree is required is industrial engineer. Nationally, there is a deficit of qualified employees to fill these and many other skilled jobs. Alabama’s continuing economic growth means that shortfall could grow bigger as industries set up or expand operations in Alabama and create more jobs requiring specific skills.

Employability Training

As one part of our strategy to address employability skills, the Career Technical Section of the Alabama State Department of Education is implementing the Alabama Simulated Workplace model in our Career Technical Centers and programs. This model reframes the career and technical education program as a company where students get a more realistic work experience. Students must clock in and out, arrive on time, work alone and in teams, read and comprehend employee manuals, and effectively communicate with each other. These skills are the foundation for any successful career.

Career Exposure

We cannot overstate the importance of increasing the exposure of students to the wide range of career opportunities available in Alabama. In the state’s seven workforce regions, industries are joining forces to host hands-on events. Through “Worlds of Work,” “Worlds of Opportunities,” and other career expo events, eighth-graders get a firsthand view from businesses of the many jobs they offer and the skills they require. These events and programs engage students with the job market and plant the seeds for careers available without a four-year degree.

At the ALSDE, we recognize that we can only teach things we know. So, we are not only educating our students, we are also educating our career coaches, teachers and school leaders. We are collaborating with Alabama’s seven Regional Workforce Councils to take educators on industry tours to expand their knowledge of the opportunities available to students. In turn, these educators are sharing this information with our young people.

Technical Skill Attainment

Alabama schools are on the forefront of innovative programs to train students in high-demand skills. In one of many examples, 14 local school systems are partnering with Alabama Industrial Development and Training (AIDT) and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama to train students through a craft academy focusing on building skills like carpentry, brick masonry, welding, electricity, plumbing and more.

Alabama students are also demonstrating their readiness for entry into the workforce through our Career Readiness Indicator (CRI) Initiative. Through this initiative, students can obtain industry-recognized credentials at no cost to them or their school systems. Thousands of Alabama graduates are coming away with credentials in high-wage/high-demand occupations in addition to their high school diplomas. These credentials serve to validate to employers that students have received real-world training in the skills they need most. The credentials also give our students a major advantage in the job-seeking process.

Dual enrollment

Another one of Alabama’s innovative educational programs is technical dual enrollment. Thanks to funding from the Alabama Legislature, students can take community college courses in high-demand occupations at no cost while they are still in high school. Students can simultaneously earn college and high school credits. These credits provide an important head start toward a technical certificate or degree. A growing number of students are even earning a high school diploma and a technical/two-year degree at the same time, giving the graduates a jumpstart on a career with good pay, benefits and advancement opportunities. The bonus is, they get that head start without incurring student debt.

Youth Apprenticeships

In addition to the many programs we offer directly through the schools, the ALSDE also encourages students to take advantage of other training programs that likewise give them a head start toward the careers they want. One such program with a renewed emphasis in Alabama is the registered apprenticeship. The ALSDE is working with companies to identify placement apprenticeship opportunities that can be filled by students still in high school. The goal is to help employers fill their workforce needs while giving students earlier exposure to a wider range of career options and the chance to “learn while they earn.” Apprenticeship areas include: healthcare, construction and carpentry, information technology, distribution, transportation and logistics, and advanced manufacturing. In many cases, the student completes the program with little or no school debt AND with a job offer.

Participation is a win-win for business. Apprenticeship Alabama staff works with employers to simplify and streamline the process of registering apprenticeships. Employers who become part of the registered program can claim a tax credit of $1,000 per apprentice for up to five apprentices each year.


Alabama is a great state, and there is no other place in the world I’d rather call home. We have an amazing abundance of resources, and the most important one is our people. Connecting Alabamians with rewarding careers for which they are appropriately trained will allow us to prosper now and for decades to come.

Under the umbrella of AlabamaWorks!, state agencies, businesses, educators and others have joined forces to close the employer-employee gap. We’re all working together to supply different pieces, solve the workforce puzzle, and promote good-paying and rewarding careers – all while meeting the needs of industries and driving economic development in Alabama.

The Alabama State Department of Education is proud to be an integral part of AlabamaWorks!

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This article was written by Josh Laney, Ed.S., Sr. Director for Workforce Development with the Alabama State Department of Education. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @LaneyWorks.

Photo Courtesy of Jerry Underwood / Made in Alabama