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More than 20,500 families in Jefferson County are led by a single, working mother with young children. By comparison, a mere 11,401 families have a working father with a stay-at-home mother.
What these U.S. Census numbers tell us is that area employers are nearly twice as likely to employ a single mother than a married father with a spouse at home. In fact, the number of working mothers with children under age 18 is almost 20 percent higher than working fathers of young children in Jefferson County, according to census data.
Yet our workforce development strategies too often reflect the long-gone era of Ward Cleaver or Mike Brady.
The reality in Greater Birmingham and across Alabama is that we need more workers, better-trained workers, and more highly educated workers to keep up with industry needs.
In one of the many reports on this topic generated in recent years, The Alabama Workforce Council warned:
"Alabama’s low population growth and labor force participation rates make it unlikely that the state’s workforce will expand organically at the pace that’s needed to replace the waves of retiring employees or fill all of the new jobs being created by new and expanding businesses in Alabama in coming years."
One researcher projected worker shortfalls in Alabama of 115,000 by 2020 and 219,000 by 2030.
Important research about workforce development is plentiful and necessary. But we have not seen any reports that address these issues with a gender lens – that take into account the simple facts that women comprise over 50% of our population, and that the majority of working women are also primary caregivers to children or aging parents, sometimes both.
The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham is committed to supporting post-secondary education, quality childcare, and wrap-around services for single mothers. Our two-generation programs provide opportunities for low-income women to move into higher-paying healthcare jobs, a field where skilled workers are greatly needed.
We have learned that issues surrounding the recruitment and retention of mothers are complex. It is not that our local employers don’t want women in skilled labor. Rather, the training programs, work environments, low-wages, and childcare limitations fail to acknowledge that children are part of our world.
The Women’s Fund listens to many of these mothers. Last year, we conducted a study in which 200 single mothers earning less than $30,000 per year at the area’s largest employers shared their stories. These women work hard. Consider:
90 percent work extra hours or a second job to make ends meet.85 percent used personal or sick days to care for a child.80 percent reported challenges finding quality childcare.
There is one last number that shows we can, and must, do better. Alabama’s labor participation rate for women is the second worst in the country – 53 percent, as compared to 64 percent for men.
More women will be critically needed to fill the growing gaps in our workforce. The math is undeniable. But without better supports, without training and work policies that recognize the many roles women fill in our community – there is a significant risk women will not be able to move into those skilled roles in high-tech manufacturing, information technology, and health care.
This article originally appeared in The Birmingham News and on AL.com.
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