An Interview with Zeke Smith, Executive Vice President of External Affairs at Alabama Power

Gloria Dittus, Chairman of Story Partners, conducted an interview with Zeke Smith, Alabama Power’s Executive Vice President of External Affairs. Alabama Power collaborates with the state and Alabama’s communities, including businesses and universities, to advance workforce development in state. Zeke is actively involved in this process and has been appointed to the state’s College and Career Ready Task Force. Zeke was appointed by the Governor to serve as chair of the Alabama Workforce Council.

Education and training are critical as industries address the need for a highly-skilled workforce. As the past chair of the Alabama Workforce Council, please discuss some of the initiatives you have led to support and train Alabama’s workers and develop the next generation workforce.

Workforce development is an important priority for the state of Alabama.  Moreover, education and training are critical as industries address the need for a highly-skilled workforce.

By 2025, Alabama will need to add 500,000 high-skilled employees to the workforce in order to fill existing industry’s labor needs and compete for new businesses. At the request of Governor Ivey, the Alabama Workforce Council (AWC) developed a coalition of workforce leaders to engage stakeholders and build a statewide plan. The result was the Success Plus Initiative, which addresses Alabama’s increasing need for workers with certificates, credentials, or degrees in addition to a high school diploma.

We are also proud of the AWC’s Public-Private Partnership Committee led by Alabama Power Foundation President Myla Calhoun. The committee provides technical assistance, including grant writing services and outcomes tracking, to a cohort of more than 30 nonprofits focused on expanding workforce and economic opportunities. So far, cohort members have been awarded $7 million in out-of-state grant support and have another $6 million in pending or in-process applications.

Another approach gaining traction is Career Coaching. The AWC worked with partners to expand the use of Career Coaches who work with high school students on identifying potential career paths. In the past five years, the Alabama state legislature has supplemented the program with $1.7 million in additional funding and Alabama has increased the number of Career Coaches statewide from 36 to 94.

We recognized early on that clear communication was critical. We developed AlabamaWorks!, a single, unified brand that encompasses all state-funded workforce entities and efforts. Along with branding, we developed a one-stop-shop website – – for all Alabama workforce resources. For example, the toolkits that Career Coaches use in working with students on potential career options are publicly available on

The needs of the workforce across industries are changing. What are some of the changes or trends that you have seen take place in recent years and what policies or programs can American businesses put in place to prepare for and adapt to the changing U.S. workforce?

Technology is driving the future of workforce, which makes closing the digital divide a top priority. The Governor’s Office last year estimated as many as 842,000 Alabamians are without access to high-speed internet. That is why it is so important to continue with public-private partnerships to open up broadband access in low-income, rural communities across the state using our existing fiber optic networks. We are fortunate to live in a state where our policymakers are committed to closing the digital divide by passing innovative policies and incentives. Alabama’s workforce will see transformative results once our unserved schools and communities are connected with the rest of the world.

Virtual Reality (VR) software is an example of technology advancing the means of training and education. We know that learning the “old way” – through videos, lectures, and PowerPoints and ending with a test – isn’t suited for everyone. We also know that learning through VR has a 75 percent retention rate as compared to lectures (5 percent) or watching and listening (20 percent). As a result, Alabama Power’s Economic & Community Development team is developing a partnership of public and private entities throughout the state to create a Virtual Reality Workforce Development Training Center. We are looking to pilot this new approach with high school students, out-of-school youth, and post-secondary students.

Workforce development is an important priority for Alabama Power. Please discuss some of the more successful and effective initiatives and programs that Alabama Power has put in place to help keep Alabama’s workforce strong.

At Alabama Power, we know that success comes through partnerships and collaboration.

One example is the Apprentice Readiness Program (ARP) championed by Alabama Power CEO Mark Crosswhite and Senior Vice President of Employee Services and Labor Relations Jeff Peoples. Through collaboration with North America’s Building Trades Unions, Alabama Power is helping train students, particularly those from underrepresented communities, and transitioning veterans for registered building trade apprenticeship programs.

Over an eight-week period, students receive hands-on training and educational services, introducing them to union crafts and the construction industry before they select a specific career trade. Earlier this year, 10 students graduated from the first Alabama-based ARP at Jefferson State Community College. More recently, nine students graduated from the second Alabama-based class located at Lawson State Community College. Both programs’ graduation rates surpassed national benchmarks and prepared students for the workforce of the future.

We are also excited about a new Lineperson Training Program set to kickoff next year. Alabama Power and Bishop State Community College are partnering to offer a training program for electric utility linepersons.

The training facility will include three classrooms, a learning laboratory, and an outdoor hands-on learning area where linepersons can hone their skills. Students will learn the fundamentals of electricity as well as the math and science principles needed to work on power lines safely. The 10-week training program will accept up to 25 students per session.

Adapting and Preparing for a Changing Workforce

Understanding how technological advancement may affect the workforce is critical for businesses and governments to adapt and prepare for the future of work. Emerging technologies, such as automation, AI, machine learning and blockchain, continue to disrupt the workforce across industries and governments. The best way to address the challenges and prepare for the future of work is through a collaborative approach between government and business.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to address the changing workforce and smooth the transition for employees, but there are many promising and innovative ideas being discussed among business leaders, governments, educational institutions and other stakeholders. Government officials are uniquely positioned to aid in the transition through implementing new policies and programs that will help prepare the next generation workforce in their local communities. There are examples of innovative and collaborative programs already taking place in states across the U.S., including in Alabama, for example, which brings together local stakeholders to strengthen the state’s workforce and economy.

The nature of work is changing, and as a result, the demands that workers face are changing too. The job market is also becoming highly competitive. As changes in the workforce become increasingly imminent, community leaders should begin investing in their local workforce now to help position them for future success.

There are many challenges that come with reforming the workforce, but there are great opportunities as well. The private and public sectors must work together to address the challenges of a changing workforce and prepare employees for the future of work.

-Gloria Story Dittus, Chairman, Story Partners

Preparing Americans for the Jobs of the Future

The world of work is changing, and changing fast. Driverless trucks, robot hamburger flippers and cashier-less checkout counters are the visible signs of workplace automation. But the real danger is not a jobless future; rather, we must prepare Americans for the many jobs of the future where they will need to work smarter alongside machines.

In the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force report The Work Ahead, led by former Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former Michigan Governor John Engler, we argue the United States needs better pathways for all to thrive in the face of the seismic forces of innovation, automation and globalization. The challenge is to rebuild the link among work, opportunity and economic security. Americans could once be confident that hard work would bring reasonable material comfort, prospects for advancement and a secure retirement. Today that path is rockier.  Higher education is necessary for most Americans; for those in the workforce, fully one-third may need to change jobs or acquire new skills to keep pace with automation over the next decade.

Companies, colleges and governments should work together – as they are doing in states like Colorado – to ensure all students can continue beyond high school, and that education builds ladders to employment through paid internships and apprenticeships. Lifelong learning must be part of our workplace DNA, and those who lose jobs should have ready access to the new skills they will need to return to another, better job. Barriers to labor mobility must be lifted; a plumber or teacher certified in one state should be free to work in another. Finally, the benefits of a secure job – health insurance, sick leave, retirement savings – must be available to all working Americans.

Automation drives productivity, which is the foundation of rising living standards. We must embrace that future, but also ensure that all Americans enjoy its benefits.

-Edward Alden, Senior Fellow, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Project Director for the Independent Task Force Report The Work Ahead: Machines, Skills, and U.S. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century



Why America’s Future Rests on Managing the Future of Work

Workers in the United States are remarkably resilient about the disruptive forces that are reshaping the way they work. A 2018 survey[1] of 11,000 middle-skills workers (those with less than a four-year college degree) from 11 countries reveals that compared to workers in many other advanced and emerging nations, U.S workers are happier with their current employment situation. More U.S. workers also believe their situation has improved over the last five years compared to workers in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and United Kingdom.

It would be a shame if we took the resilience and enthusiasm of U.S. workers for granted. For, despite their belief that the future of work will be better for them, the survey identified that workers in the U.S. face three very real challenges in preparing for the future. They are alarmed about the high cost of training or re-skilling. They worry about forgone wages and the lack of time to invest in training. And they don’t know the right options to prepare them for future jobs. All three issues are areas where business and policy leaders can help: They can close the information gap and the resources gap that then leads to the skills gap.

Ensuring that U.S. workers have the skills required to be productive in the jobs of the future is the single, most-significant task we can focus on to improve U.S. competitiveness. It helps U.S. companies access the steady stream of trained talent they require in order to be globally competitive, and it helps U.S. workers aspire to higher wages and better standards of living. Above all, it protects U.S. workers from forces like globalization and automation. It prepares them for jobs that are on-shore and tasks that require more sophisticated human engagement. Given that today, more than 66% of the U.S. population has less than a four-year college education, addressing the middle skills gap in America is a critical priority for not just the prosperity of the nation. It is essential for ensuring that prosperity is shared by all Americans.

-Manjari Raman, Program Director and Senior Researcher, Project on U.S. Competitiveness and Project on Managing the Future of Work, Harvard Business School

[1] “Future Positive,” Joseph B. Fuller, Judith K. Wallenstein, Manjari Raman, Alice de Chandler, Project on Managing the Future of Work at Harvard Business School and BCG’s Henderson Institute, May 2019.


How State Policymakers Can Prepare for the Future of Work

Governors and state legislators have an important role in preparing their constituents for the changing nature of work. Earlier this year, the Aspen Future of Work Initiative published a State Policy Agenda highlighting a set of policy options for state policymakers to consider. These proposals focus on three approaches: modernizing worker benefits and protections, building a skilled and resilient workforce, and aligning and prioritizing future of work policy.

  • The traditional employer-employee relationship has weakened over time, meaning that work for many does not include employer-provided benefits and protections. The first approach seeks to encourage economic stability and security through proposals like creating a system of portable benefits, expanding paid leave across all work arrangements, limiting non-compete and no-poach agreements, and updating Unemployment Insurance to account for non-traditional work.
  • Technology and globalization will continue to create opportunities and challenges for workers. The combined impact of these trends will inevitably lead to the decline of some jobs and industries, while creating new types of jobs and necessary skills in other areas. Policymakers have an important role to play in helping workers manage these transitions. Working with employers, we need policies that make it easier to access effective and affordable training that leads to concrete job opportunities and career pathways. This approach focuses on proposals like boosting the incentive for employers to invest in workers, empowering workers to invest in their own training, expanding access to high-quality training, increasing quality apprenticeships, expanding career coaching and re-employment services, and improving state labor market data.
  • To meet the challenge, states need to involve all stakeholders, from education and training providers, to philanthropy and policymakers. States like California, New Jersey, and Colorado have created task forces to examine the future of work and develop local solutions. Other states, like Indiana, have created a Workforce Cabinet, where members of the Governor’s Cabinet focus attention on these issues. Finally, Virginia has created a new Cabinet-level position, Chief Workforce Advisor to the Governor, to work across government agencies to develop ideas that address the changing nature of work. These examples provide models that other states should consider as they evaluate how to develop their own solutions.

State policymakers have the opportunity and responsibility to develop new ideas, pilot innovative programs, and forge partnerships that help workers and businesses in the U.S. adjust to a changing economy. We hope that these policy ideas can serve as a starting point as they build a vision for the future of their states.

-Alastair Fitzpayne, Executive Director, Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative