The story of Ōnin’s involvement in workforce development began at Central High School, located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The principal of Central High, Dr. Sutton, was faced with a serious dilemma: He was witnessing graduating seniors who weren’t going to college fall through the cracks of society without any work or purpose. 

This reality troubled Dr. Sutton deeply, so he began knocking on local food service doors to see if they would hire some of his graduating students. Soon, the word about Dr. Sutton’s actions and his passion for his students began to spread across the West Alabama region.

After learning about the needs facing Central High School and meeting with Dr. Sutton personally, Ōnin immediately adopted his high school as our own. For students who aren’t college bound, navigating local career opportunities can be difficult and determining what job you’re best suited for is often overwhelming. After graduation, it’s easy for students to feel limited to low-paying service jobs they’re readily familiar with. Meanwhile, employers struggle to find qualified, skilled workers in a tight labor market.

To solve this unemployment barrier facing graduating seniors at Central High, Ōnin joined school educators and employers to tackle this issue. What was designed during that meeting has since become a catalyst for change throughout the entire state of Alabama.

During that meeting, local industry leaders and educational professionals created the High School Ready-to-Work program. This employer charge was led by Russel Dubose from Phifer Inc., who leveraged his employer network to serve this need. Russell not only expressed enthusiasm to meet this need, but a desire to collaboratively design a program to develop a successful, skilled and in-demand local workforce.

The High School Ready-to-Work Program is an employer-led initiative that creates a career pathway for high school seniors and builds a local talent pipeline for industries.

Students take part in a semester-long course that begins with six weeks of AIDT soft skill training, problem-solving and various work-readiness skills. The next 12-13 weeks cover industry-led content designed by local employers to meet real hiring needs. Offered industry tracks include automotive, construction, manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, finance and distribution. Each week, an imitation world of a particular industry is created for students to step into and explore.

Upon successful completion of the High School Ready-to-Work program, students will receive a National Career Readiness Certificate and an Alabama Certified Worker Certificate. With a job placement percentage close to 90%, this program has successfully created career opportunities and has since expanded rapidly to over twelve different high schools in West Alabama and into the Birmingham area as of 2018.

The success of this High School Ready-to-Work Program had many contributing factors, but if I were to peel back a few layers to take a deeper look, I would highlight three main areas that have been crucial for its progress.

Employer-led Initiative

The challenge of the skills gap must be met by those who have the most at stake, which is the employer. The success of this High School Ready-to-Work program is driven by business and industry leader demands matched with the criteria for skills and talent. This program bridges the gap with employers who have a shortage of qualified talent by matching them with high school seniors wanting to enter the workforce upon graduation. With 75 million baby boomers marching toward retirement, it’s clear that employers will need more than one workforce plan for replacing existing workers. This employer-led initiative is not a one-time event but is designed to be a sustained effort to create a long-term talent pipeline across multiple high schools. When employers — like Russell Dubose from Phifer, Inc. — lead the program, demand-driven solutions are put in place.

Industry Collaborative Design

True impact requires new forms of collaboration. The strength of this High School Ready-to-Work program is built around the shared hiring and industry needs across multiple industry sectors. To successfully compete in a global economy, companies must have access to long-term, qualified labor pools. The collaborative industry design creates a shared talent pipeline that is aligned with the market’s needs. When recruiting talent, joining a workforce collaborative improves business visibility to providers, prospective workers and students.

Top-down and Bottom-up Educational Buy-in

Some of the greatest ideas are caught, not taught. When educational leaders “catch” the vision of the High School Ready-to-Work program for their students, they become stakeholders. Too often — and in far too many circles — educational programs are designed without including the school leadership from the beginning. The High School Ready-to-Work designs the program from the bottom up, listening to real needs with local employers so the skills taught align with the workforce needs.

As this High School Ready-to-Work Program expands across Alabama, The Ōnin Group is positioning itself to lead the charge in preparing today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs without letting any young adults slip through the cracks. 

It’s a noble goal and it is a constant reminder of Ōnin’s purpose to “Create Opportunity and Empower People.” We believe there are few things as empowering as educating the next generation to succeed in the workforce.

Garth Thorpe

The Onin Group

Garth Thorpe stepped into our newly created position as Workforce Development Manager in early 2018. Garth is focused on creating new talent pipelines for multiple industries through the High School Ready-to-Work program. Before joining Ōnin, Garth worked in West Africa and South America, equipping aging-out orphans with life and job skills so they could become gainfully employed in the private sector.