Lessons in Cultivating a Work-Ready Environment
The Wiregrass Economic Development Corporation of Alabama
In the last decade, the Wiregrass Region of Alabama has emerged as a hotspot for advanced industries ranging from manufacturing all the way through to aeronautics…
With one of the most specialized workforces in the country and a unique business-centric infrastructure to match, the area continues to gain industry attention across state lines and beyond. Jonathan Tullos, Executive Director at the Wiregrass Economic Development Corporation, provided us some insight into why so many growing businesses are choosing to break ground in this region.
Alabama may not be the first place you think of when you hear the words ‘advanced technology’, but one look at the recent innovations coming out of the Alabama Wiregrass Region proves that ingenuity isn’t just reserved for Silicon Valley.
The Wiregrass Region, which spans parts of Georgia, Alabama and the Florida panhandle, is home to a surprising number of industries and resources. The Alabama portion of the region includes the cities of Enterprise, Elba, Geneva, Hartford, and Samson, as well as the counties of Coffee and Geneva.
Like much of the south, the Wiregrass region has a legacy of agriculture which dates back centuries but, what really sets it apart, is its ongoing commitment to technological development, both in terms of infrastructure and workforce.
While the region remains a prominent player in agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and automotive, in recent years, it has gained widespread attention for its contributions to the manufacturing and aerospace sectors. From automotive and forestry to manufacturing and aeronautics, this once small region is quickly becoming a major player in a diverse array of areas.
Since the Alabama Wiregrass area is located at the tip of the automotive corridor and is home to a nationally recognized military installation, manufacturing has always been at the core of the local economy. “Historically, the area was heavily involved in the textiles industry. A lot of those skills – like working with your hands – can be translated easily to manufacturing and automotive with just a little bit of training.”
Over the last twenty years, technological progression has influenced an industrial shift toward automated and advanced technologies. As this revolution took root, however, so did the global economic downturn. As a result, many areas across the US faced substantial industrial decline. However, while others shied away from investing in technology, the Wiregrass region embraced it.
With the added benefit of a substantial military presence and a skilled population, the Alabama Wiregrass region quickly leveraged its existing resources to create a work-ready community. By cultivating this forward-thinking, growth-ready environment, the Wiregrass reinvented itself. Today, the area’s industrial footprint is stronger than ever.
The ecosystem of advanced industry has evolved massively in the last decade. With that change came an almost immediate demand for skilled laborers. As the majority of industries turned toward automation, many localities struggled to build and maintain an adequate employee base. Luckily, in the Wiregrass area of Alabama the talent pool was well-equipped for advanced industry. Today, this workforce has developed into one of the most specialized in the region. “We have a tremendously skilled labor force, particularly in terms of aerospace and manufacturing. It’s something that has really enabled business to grow here.”
In the Wiregrass, advanced technical knowledge has been an integral part of the area’s development long before the trend hit most industries. To better understand what makes the talent pool so skilled, one needs to look at the community’s military roots.
Fort Rucker is a major US military installation located in the heart of the Wiregrass. The post, which was created in the 1950s, has drawn a robust and continuous flow of skilled professionals for decades. Fort Rucker consistently trains and employs military professionals from across the globe in the most advanced aerospace technologies and techniques on the market. As the main flight training base for the US Army’s aviation division and the location of the United States Army Aviation Center for Excellence (USAACE), Fort Rucker has pioneered some of the most innovative defense technologies and techniques the world has ever seen.
Fort Rucker has influenced the development of military ancillary businesses across the Alabama Wiregrass region. These defense companies have experience with the likes of Boeing and other US Military aircraft providers. Moreover, as a hub for military aviation, the region is home to approximately 51,000 military retirees with backgrounds that range from piloting to engineering and everything in between. As a result of this relationship with Fort Rucker, the region has developed substantial infrastructure for not only aerospace but manufacturing and metalwork as well.
In terms of business growth and professional development, Wiregrass offers unparalleled educational training opportunities. In working towards developing one of the most specialized labor forces in the country, the local governments and the Wiregrass Economic Development Corporation have invested heavily into the development of a specialized education program which ensures that growing firms will have access to an ongoing flow of work-ready employees.
Years ago, a major education program was created, the Alabama Aviation Center, and run through the Enterprise State Community College system. This initiative, which starts as early as high school, offers Wiregrass students the opportunity to gain the training and hands-on experience necessary to serve the repair and maintenance needs of the aerospace and broader manufacturing industry. The labor force is built into an infrastructure pipeline that supports the continuous expansion of the aerospace and manufacturing firms in the region.
As a result of Fort Rucker, the Wiregrass is home to a unique cross-section of cultures. With thousands of students from all over the world training and living in the area, it is no surprise that homegrown innovation is a major contributor to the local economy. As a result of the in-depth expertise in the region, many of the locally-developed defense consultants are working, in tandem with the US military, to create solutions for the changing needs of national defense.
From assisting the military to developing roadmaps for unmanned aerial systems to manufacturing the leading commercially produced Doppler radar system, local innovation in the Wiregrass is serious business.
Seeking affordability, accessibility and opportunity, a substantial number of tier-one companies, both domestically and from abroad, have relocated to the Wiregrass region over the last few years. “When it comes to doing business on a global scale, people are starting to see that Alabama can offer more, for less.”
There is not only a lower cost of living and doing business, but there are also generous incentives from state and local governments. “There is nothing off the table when there is a project that is mutually beneficial for the area,” said Tullos.
Although the highly trained labor force may be the point of initial attraction for many companies, the cost of operations and the quality of life in the Wiregrass are undeniable drivers of the region’s climbing profile. Although the Wiregrass has access to several major interstates, airports and even a rail line, there is substantially less traffic in the area compared to areas that are intersected by multiple trade routes or flooded with urban commuters. With less traffic, comes shorter travel times for residents, and monetary savings for firms using on-the-ground transport.
In the end, it is the quality of life which attracts professionals. With some of the best school districts in the state, affordable housing and a renowned health system, the appeal of the Wiregrass Region extends far beyond price points.
The Wiregrass has all the trappings of industrial success without the pressures of urban life. With several pre-planned sites open for development, a legacy of ingenuity and a workforce primed and ready to do business, the Alabama Wiregrass region is the definition of a pro-business environment. “We have a unique mentality and culture here. We work together, and that is part of the reason people like being here.”