Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, looking down Selma’s main street, it is hard to envision 100,000 people walking down these desolate sidewalks, as they did just a month ago when they gathered to commemorate Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act.
Within a two-block radius of the bridge’s base, 48 businesses are closed and 42 only remain open.
William Scott runs a Community and Economic Development Company called Tristatz. He provides technology and resources for local startups. Scott holds workshops, hosts meet and greets and offers free classes on customer service and management. It costs $700 for a business plan, lawyers at discount, and access to the conference room and facilities.
Scott says for small businesses in Selma to be successful they need to find their creative niche. Mom and pop shops do well in the Black Belt because people like to shop in businesses that where they know the owners.
Though there are so many shuttered businesses in Selma’s downtown now, he is optimistic about the town’s future. Even though many of the business have closed down in this section of town, he says companies where people work out of their homes are doing well.
But statistics show that Selma, like many small towns that relied on manufacturing, is struggling. The downtown is a strong reminder that the 2008 recession hit hardest in places that were already struggling.
The median household income in the state is $41,574. But in Selma it’s $21,265. For black residents of the town, it’s $19,591. The job growth rate has actually declined 3.14 percent.
Selma is home to four industrial parks and 21 percent of its industries are in manufacturing, including a Hyundai which has 2500 employees and a Honda plant which has 268 workers. The service industry follows with 14 percent, retail and construction at 9 percent each.
Selma has recently been in the spotlight for the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and also the movie, Selma. Tens of thousands of people congregated in Selma, including President Barack Obama, other politicians, celebrities, and people from around the world. But after all the visitors went home, life in Selma went back to normal.
“Normal” means a 40 percent poverty rate, high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and bankrupt businesses. Statewide, unemployment rates are at 6.1 percent, but in Selma they are at an outstanding 10.2 percent. Among African Americans, the unemployment rate is 19 percent.
Even so, the town struggles to find skilled workers.
Scott works hard, through his economic development company, to help those who are lacking the skills they need to land a job they. Many of his clients don’t know how write resumes, type, use the internet or dress appropriately for job interviews or meeting with clients. The company holds workshops to help small business owners.
Scott touched on a few challenges for the small businesses in the area. In Selma, family and church are of high importance to community members. Most of the stores downtown close at 2 p.m., cutting on down on their business hours, because few residents eat out at night. “They go home after work to have dinner time with their families,” he said.
There are rich residents and poor residents but few members of the middle class, Scott said. “We have to work together to bridge the gap.”
Many Selma business leaders insist that there are jobs available—just not enough skilled people to fill them. With an unemployment rate of 10 percent, city officials refute the idea that Selma lacks opportunity.
“People say there are no jobs in Selma. I wanna tell you there are plenty of jobs in Selma, God knows there are,” Mayor George Patrick Evans says. “The problem right now is the skill level… One of the biggest things is the ones who [have] the ability can’t pass the drug test or their background check may sometimes keep them from getting the job.”
Industries face recruitment challenges, because many applicants can’t get through the hiring process. In a 2013 skills gap study, 5000 out of the 6926 Alabama employers responded. Key findings in the study state the top three reasons for rejecting applicants are poor attitude, the inability to pass a drug screening and lack of a driver’s license or reliable transportation.
Now, Alabama Governor Robert J. Bentley has developed a College and Career Ready Task Force that connects employers with educators of students in K-12 and the community college system. The task force works to provide answers to workforce development needs. The goal is to produce better workers for business and industry.
Initiatives by the Economic Development Authority support statewide programs. The study identified that 41 percent of the gap is in “soft skills,” such as basic conduct and professionalism. Sixty-five percent of the soft skills gap is in attendance. “We’re now in the schools once a month teaching with the companies,” says Wayne Vardaman, Director of EDA. “[We teach] soft skills first, which got into how you conduct yourself on a interview? How do you fill out an application? How do you do a resume? What’s the importance of being to work on time? Why is it important to be there everyday? Things you and I may take for granted that unfortunately, a lot of these people don’t understand.”
The Human Resources people for those companies that are actually hiring do the training in the schools. “It’s been very successful,” says Vardaman. “The students have been attentive.” Things are getting better, he believes. “We continue to make improvements within and I’d like to see continued growth.”
Mayor George Patrick Evans concurs. He believes that with enough adequately trained people, Selma can “rise again.” The Arsenal, a business incubator in Selma, is one effort to revive the troubled economy.
Article by Kelsey Staggers and Maya Gilmore, video by Maya Gilmore