Competition sparks career-connected learning innovation in Birmingham, Alabama

Catalyze awards grants to local nonprofits to help address regional challenges

As employers grapple to find workers with the skills they need, they are also being challenged to adapt to technological changes. The talent shortage, by the numbers, is staggering according to a 2024 survey by Manpower. It finds three out of four employers worldwide report difficulty filling positions, as do 70% of U.S. employers.

With a push toward solutions, an idea gaining momentum is to expand work-based learning in K-12 schools to build job pathways. The effort reaches far beyond classrooms, requiring partnerships ranging from employers to government agencies, educational institutions, and nonprofits.

One organization seizing the moment is Catalyze, a nonprofit collaborating with funders to launch and support career-connected learning programs. Its mission is to bridge the gap between student interests and employer needs. In doing so, it aims to link students to job training for their desired careers and put them on a path to economic mobility. 

K-12 Career-Connected Learning 
Michelle Cheang, Ed.D., director, Catalyze

“When we think about career-connected learning, we really want young people to really think about what they’re learning in the classroom, outside the classroom, and linking that to careers and having that exposure. What we really value at Catalyze is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model and that careers are not just discussed near the end of high school,” says Michelle Cheang, Ed.D., director of Catalyze.

Since its start in 2021, Catalyze has awarded more than $13 million in grants to more than 60 organizations. 

Catalyze, says Cheang, looks for innovative programs through its Catalyze Challenge where groups compete for grant funds. The idea is to measure impact and scale successful programs. 

In a recent round of national grants awarded to 15 organizations, Cheang says the organization received 800 applications, triple the amount from the previous year. When considering applications, Catalyze looks for organizations that understand the learners they are working with and design programs to meet those needs. 

“Whether it’s removing barriers to access, increasing equity for young people, it’s important that the folks that are on the ground really understand the needs, and the contextualized and individualized needs that our young people have,” emphasizes Chaeng. 

In a push to understand those individualized needs in communities, Catalyze is now expanding into regional challenges choosing Birmingham, Alabama as its first host city. 

‘Big enough to matter, small enough to move’
J.W. Carpenter, president, Prosper

“We are the perfect city – big enough to matter, small enough to move – where we’ve got a lot of thinkers, but we’ve also got a very big need. So, this is a great springboard to, no pun intended, catalyze our workforce and education systems,” J.W. Carpenter, president of Prosper, which hosted Catalyze Birmingham. 

Prosper is a nonprofit with a stated mission of “building the most thriving and inclusive economy in the Southeast.”

Carpenter cites a combination of cutting-edge research like that at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a robust philanthropic community, and a lack of government red tape as ripe conditions to innovate. He describes Prosper as the quarterback of a team, connecting all parties to make things happen in a state with a low unemployment rate in need of talent. High on the list – the health care industry.

Introducing Students to STREAM 

Catalyze Birmingham awarded $720,000 in grants funded by the Walton Family Foundation to five nonprofits chosen from more than 70 applicants. The largest award went to STREAM Innovations – serving more than 3,000 students in the state. STREAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. 

(Photo: STREAM Innovations)

The educational nonprofit introduces students from 3rd to 12th grade to STREAM activities such as coding boot camps and looks to find innovators in underserved communities. “We are very intentional about looking at the future of work, workforce development, as well as the integration of technology in being able to expose students at an early age to what it is they think they might like as well as realize ‘I don’t really like that,’” says Adrienne Starks, Ph.D., founder and CEO of STREAM Innovations.

Adrienne Starks, Ph.D., founder and CEO, STREAM Innovations

Starks, a scientist herself, is driven by a passion to unlock potential and find young innovators. She intends to use the grant money to create a lab that will give students – starting in middle school – hands-on experience in health and biomedical health. 

“We are also taking away some of the pressure of asking a student ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ We want to ask them ‘How do you want to solve problems?’ And if solving problems within the health field or biomedical research is what you want to do, this is the thing for you,” says Starks. 

What makes this lab different, she explains, is that it will be built using retrofitted cargo shipping containers, making it mobile. “It gives us the opportunity to move in fast, start up fast, and if it does not function properly within the community, then it gives us an opportunity to take that to another location and not leave a community worse off than we entered the community,” explains Starks – adding that the intention is to infuse hope in communities. 

She is setting her sights on expanding labs to other industries such as construction and agriculture with the aim of building a model that can be scaled outside of Alabama.

Opening Doors for Individuals with Disabilities           

Another grant winner is United Ability, a nonprofit serving people with disabilities through their lifespan. Employment services are a big part of its mission, and the organization is making a push to ensure that individuals with disabilities are part of workforce inclusivity.

“DEI is a very big buzzword these days and we are really trying to educate employers and people in our community that that includes people with disabilities,” says Katie Dumais, director of employment services at United Ability.  

(Photo: United Ability)

Dumais works annually with an estimated 900 high school students who have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to ADHD. To open doors for them, United Ability is launching what it touts as Alabama’s first pre-apprenticeship program – working with manufacturing employers.

Katie Dumais, director of employment services, United Ability

To be eligible, Dumais says employers must have an existing apprenticeship program. The pre-apprenticeship program will run for three months where young people will build skills earning certificates and credentials. Dumais explains that upon completion, they can either enter the workforce or go on to the full apprenticeship program.

Schedules, she says, will need to be adapted to meet the needs of the apprentices. “We would have staff on-site to work with the employer’s staff so if there are accommodations that need to be made or special tools that would have to be developed for them to do the maintenance apprenticeship or the tool and die apprenticeship, we can work with rehab engineers from the state to help create those,” explains Dumais.  

Susan Sellers, CEO, United Ability

To start, United Ability anticipates 12 individuals within the first two years to build a model the organization hopes to scale. 

“It can be a game changer, not just for the Birmingham community but you have a successful model like this and there are a lot of organizations that do employment services here throughout the state of Alabama,” says Susan Sellers, CEO of United Ability. “Our hope is that they can all work with local employers and really boost the overall economy of the state.”

More Awards to Come

Other organizations awarded grants through Catalyze Birmingham include the Mechanical Craft Training Institute, Oak Tree Ministries, and Spring Valley School.

There will be another round of Catalyze Birmingham Challenge grant awards later this year. And as Prosper’s Carpenter looks to build momentum, he draws upon Birmingham’s history in the civil rights movement.

He says, “It’s incredibly exciting to me that while years ago, the entire power structure was oriented around denying people opportunities, the entire power structure right now in Birmingham is aligned around creating opportunity.”

Get our latest articles, videos, and podcasts
sharing solutions to today's workforce challenges.

Sign Up to Recieve Our Newsletter