Ed Bushaw and Sally Westendorf at the Gateway Initiative have always had a passion for career and technical education especially when it comes to hospitality. In fact, every time I am in South Baldwin County I visit a new venue that they suggest. Thanks to them I have had the good fortune of fulfilling my guilty pleasure of fried seafood at Wolf Bay, pretending I am still young at the Hang Out and I have enjoyed the fine dining at Voyagers.

Ed introduced me to the President of the South Baldwin Chamber, Donna Watts, a leader whose heart and commitment to the region knows no bounds - which is still an understatement. I taught Ed and Donna how to make a daiquiri in their boardroom. I didn’t bring a shaker or liquor - just a headset. By putting on a virtual reality headset, they were transported to an upscale bar where their bartender coach, Simon, watched them make a daiquiri as you can see here.

Learning to make a Daiquiri in Virtual Reality

They immediately grasped the power of what could be. While making daiquiris was fun (and a great way to make new friends) there was a much bigger opportunity here. If someone with no background in bartending can learn to make a daiquiri in a few minutes, what other skills could be learned? Can a trainee learn how to greet customers and follow the standard operating procedures of a reputable hospitality group? Can a job seeker master the industrial techniques required to gain employment at a competitive manufacturer? In healthcare, can someone be taught the skills required to become a nurse? What if all these introductory hands-on skills can be learned with a single headset? The accessibility to high fidelity job training would be changed forever.

Donna and the Gateway team have been preaching about the potential of South Baldwin for years. After visiting the region and seeing it with my own eyes, I started drinking the South Alabama Kool-aid myself - with a side of Conecuh sausage. With over 6 million visitors a year making an economic impact of $4.2 billion the region was expanding beyond its sleepy fish village roots. New industries such as manufacturing with reputable companies like Vulcan, Inc. and Collins Aerospace provide a diverse range of job opportunities. Furthermore, employers are willing to hire if job seekers can demonstrate they have the required skills. 

By giving students and job seekers the ability to put on a headset and learn almost the exact skills that they would be required to demonstrate to an employer, schools and workforce development agencies could help provide a pathway to a middle class job for job seekers while enabling employers cultivate the local talent. 

Donna and the Gateway team have heard the common refrain from employers over and over again: “We can’t find enough qualified candidates!”, “There is a skills gap.” and so on. So they wondered if there was a way to partner with employers and the public education system to create a classroom-to-career pipeline in a way that has never been done before. 

That is when the Gateway Initiative decided to partner with my company, TRANSFR Inc. It is a really unique relationship because the local chambers of commerce decided that one way they could help local citizens is by investing in the specific training that employers who are hiring state they need. It was innovative because it just completely bypassed the conventional thinking that the training had to be based on academic standards. The goal was to provide training that the employers said they needed and skills that employers committed to hiring for. 

We now have over 100 various simulations that job seekers can master to acquire the skills needed for entry level jobs in manufacturing in addition to introductory level training for the hospitality industry.

Measuring Paint Robot & Hand Tools Safety 

This Fall, the Gateway Initiative will select several schools to work with in the South Baldwin community to develop a classroom-to-career pipeline. While the training will be integrated into the classroom, it will be aligned with industry standards so that students can get a feel for what will be expected of them on the job. Many students will realize that they can become proficient in the skills required to obtain a middle-class job. Some will decide to enroll in a 2-year degree program at Coastal Alabama Community College to continue down their career path so they can "earn and learn".

Finally, some students may try a specific career experience and decide they want to do something else. That’s great news for both the student and the would-be employer so that neither party wastes their time trying to pursue a relationship that may not be a great fit for either. Ultimately, we believe that with the proper training, everyone can find success. Our mission is to help them find it.