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How Governor Bentley Led Alabama to Lower Unemployment and Changed the State's Job Strategy

Updated: Jun 11, 2018


“And I’ll not take a salary until Alabama reaches full employment.”


With those words Robert Bentley, a Physician serving in Alabama’s House of

Representatives captured the attention of the people of Alabama, and set the course

for creating thousands of Alabama jobs and bringing world-leading companies to

the state. It was 2010 and Alabama’s economy, along with the rest of the nation’s,

was reeling from the Great Recession. Alabama’s unemployment rate was 11.4

percent, manufacturing plants were closing and the companies that managed to

hang on were not hiring. Then in April 2010 the unprecedented environmental disaster of the Gulf Coast oil spill added a crippling blow to the state’s economy and

tourism dependent jobs dried up.


Robert Bentley was one of a dozen or so candidates running for the Office of

Governor in 2010. With barely any statewide name recognition, the simple and

straightforward doctor knew he needed to stand out from the pack. So he emptied

out his personal retirement account and produced a series of commercials

introducing Alabamians to himself and what became known as the Salary Pledge.

Bentley promised he would never accept a salary as Alabama’s Governor, until the

unemployment rate dropped to a level that economists deemed as “Full

Employment.”


“It was symbolic,” said Bentley. “ The salary pledge was my way of relating to and

understanding what people were going through who didn’t have a job at that time.”

“Full employment, which was 5.2 percent, was a target, a goal we needed to reach to

make sure every Alabamians who needed a job could get a job.”


Bentley's "Salary Pledge" commercial grabbed the attention of voters in 2010

Bentley was elected to the state’s highest office by an overwhelming margin in the

2010 General Election, and he wasted no time getting to work creating jobs. The day after his Inauguration, when the new Administration staff could barely find their way around the Capitol, he met with a company from China.


Not only did Bentley ask the Chinese copper tubing company to locate in Alabama,

he wanted them to build their plant in Wilcox County, the poorest area of the state

with the highest unemployment rate and later ranked as the poorest county in the

nation in the 2012 Census. As became his go-to pitch for hundreds of recruiting

visits, Bentley promised the Chinese company a ready, willing and very capable

workforce. The Governor was fond of often saying the “hardworking people of our

state” was his secret weapon in convincing large companies to bring their business

to Alabama.


After landing Golden Dragon Copper Tubing and their commitment to bring 300

jobs to Wilcox County, the physician turned Governor got the taste for job recruiting

and moved full steam ahead. The Governor’s Official calendar was filled with

meetings and recruiting visits that would lead to more jobs. He was often on the

road, either meeting with prospects or proudly holding what became known to

staffers as “Jobs announcements” - when the Governor would travel to a community

to announce the state had landed another company and would locate there. Bentley

would prioritize any jobs-related event over requested meetings with

Montgomery’s movers and shakers, meetings that most politicians wouldn’t want to

miss. He wasn’t too interested in party politics and would have preferred to be

luring a large company to some small corner of Alabama than hosting fundraisers or

rubbing elbows with the political class or special interest groups.





Six months into his first term, Governor Bentley and the state were still struggling

with daunting recovery and rebuilding after an unprecedented tornado outbreak devastated two-thirds of the state. Unemployment actually inched higher following the tragedy, and Governor Bentley knew he needed a better job recruiting strategy.


Seth Hammett, then-Director of the Alabama Development Office (which was later

renamed the Department of Commerce under Bentley), drew up a plan for Bentley

and presented what would become known as Accelerate Alabama. The strategic

plan became Governor Bentley’s blueprint for recruiting jobs. Governor Bentley

took the Accelerate Alabama plan and approached the process of recruiting jobs the

same way a CEO may realign a company to be more efficient, reduce redundancies

and increase productivity. Once the plan was in place, the results were astounding.


Accelerate Alabama aligned the multiple state and local economic development

entities and allowed local governments to play a larger and more cooperative role in

the recruitment of jobs. The plan targeted certain industries for recruitment, such as

the Aerospace industry and placed a greater emphasis on supporting start-up

companies to develop in Alabama. Within a few months the unemployment rate

began to slowly drop.


Alabama’s workforce, its people, was a key element in the Accelerate Alabama plan.

Under Bentley, a heavier emphasis was placed on Alabama Industrial Development

Training (AIDT), the state’s workforce training agency. AIDT became a valuable tool

in recruiting new industry by increasing its ability to train and produce highly

skilled workers for a newly recruited company, giving Alabama the edge over other

states.


In "Back to Work", the 2010 campaign commercial, Bentley made his signature Salary Pledge to Alabamians.


“These companies we were trying to recruit were very interested in what we had to

offer in AIDT,” said Bentley. “Imagine them hearing that we would train our

workers, to build jetliners or engines or cars for them. That was hard for a company

to turn down, and so they would choose us. And our Alabamians got the good jobs. It

was a win-win offer.”


Bentley would go on to land the aerospace giant Airbus in 2012, which now

produces jetliners in Mobile, and hundreds of aerospace suppliers now employ

thousands of Alabamians. Mercedes in Tuscaloosa expanded numerous times during

the Governor Bentley Administration, adding thousands more jobs. By 2014, when

he was running for his second term, Governor Bentley was announcing Remington,

Polaris, Commercial Jet, and dozens of international auto and aerospace suppliers.

Still the unemployment rate, while lower than when he took office, hovered around

7 percent, a long way to go to reach that 5.2 percent target.




Governor Bentley each summer travelled overseas leading a state and local

delegation to either the Paris or the Farnborough Air Show, where state and local officials from across the US actively recruited companies in the aerospace industry. Bentley, leading the economic development mission, was a tireless recruiter, and was known for his pep talks he would give to Team Alabama just after they arrived. “I would just tell them we were there to get jobs for our people. We were there to work, and we worked for the people of Alabama.”


Bentley received high praise for his “marathon effort” from local officials such as

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who saw first hand Bentley’s determined efforts to

recruit industry.


The Accelerate Alabama plan helped guide the successful recruitment of dozens of

companies and steered Bentley and state officials to aim even higher. The ADO

office was renamed the Department of Commerce and under Governor Bentley

launched “Made in Alabama” in 2013, a rebranded marketing effort to better

showcase Alabama, its workforce and its resources to the world.



Late 2014, Bentley was elected by a 64% Margin to serve a second term as

Governor. Unemployment hovered between 7.3 and 6.1 percent during the election

cycle, dropping steadily. January 2015, Governor Bentley entered his second term,

still having never received a paycheck for his work as Governor. “I was still

motivated as ever,” said Bentley. “But it wasn’t the salary that I cared about, it was

knowing that when we reached 5.2, we had really made a difference in people’s lives

and in the State.”


Bentley pressed on and the state landed even more marquee industries, and more

importantly, people across the state were going back to work. Even when facing

Legislative hurdles and a state budget crisis, Governor Bentley kept his focus on job

creation and unemployment hovered around 6 percent, the lowest levels the state

had seen since 2008.


Governor Bentley would beam with pride for the state when he spoke about

Alabama’s growing jobs market. From Jobs Announcement to Ground Breaking and

finally to Grand Opening, Governor Bentley didn’t miss a moment in the process to join a local community in celebrating new jobs for the people who lived there.


“To see the jobs we recruited, for instance, Golden Dragon Copper Tubing in Wilcox County,” said Governor Bentley. “To be at the Grand Opening there in Pine Hill and to shake the hands of real people who now had good paying jobs. I couldn’t have been more pleased and grateful I got to be a part of that.”


Governor Bentley meets first employees of Golden Dragon Copper Tubing in Wilcox County prior to the Grand Opening May 2014.

The early job recruitment efforts by Governor Bentley and his Administration

slowly began to pay off into his second term as the companies he recruited came

online and began training and hiring workers. In 2015, Governor Bentley and the

state were once again bringing big names and high paying jobs to a corner of the

state when he announced Google had chosen Jackson County for a call center

bringing with it hundreds of jobs.


Gov. Bentley announced Google to Alabama in June 2015

By 2016, companies like GE Aviation broke ground in Huntsville and newly

announced aerospace projects accounted for $56 Million in investment that year

alone.


Then Governor Bentley decided to also take a more direct and intentional approach to helping place people in the thousands of jobs that were available. The Alabama Department of Labor began holding Job Fairs across the state, where companies who were hiring would be able to directly connect to anyone looking for a job. The job fairs were a huge success, with lines of people stretching out the door to apply for a job with the companies who were hiring. Governor Bentley would often attend the job fairs, even sitting with the job seekers, helping them go over their resume’.



As for the Unemployment rate, Bentley had almost put the salary pledge out of his

mind. “We were so focused on creating jobs, I had almost forgotten I hadn’t received

a paycheck, until someone would remind me how close we were getting to reaching

that 5.2.”


By early 2017 the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent. Jobs were online and

companies were still coming. March of 2017, the Governor announced that

Tuskegee in Macon County was a finalist for Leonardo DRS to build Air Force jets,

creating 750 jobs. (Leonardo did choose Tuskegee in 2018).


By that time under his leadership, Alabama's unemployment rate had been cut in half, dropping from 10.2 percent to 5. 5 from the time Governor Bentley was elected until January 2017. Accelerate Alabama, the job strategy created and implemented early on in Bentley's first term, is still used today by the Department of Commerce, refined as Accelerate Alabama 2.0 under Bentley in early 2017. The Strategic Growth Plan for economic development helped created over 75,000 new jobs under the Bentley Administration.


By the time Governor Bentley stepped away from public office in April 2017, the

announced Unemployment rate was at 5.4 percent, a breath away from the goal Bentley aimed to reach during his two terms. Under his leadership the state redefined and restructured its approach to economic development. As a result between 75, 000 and 100,000 jobs were recruited and created during the Bentley era. Although tens of thousands of Alabamians got jobs, and some of the world’s largest companies located in Alabama, Governor Bentley still never took a single paycheck.


“No, I never received a paycheck," Bentley said. "But what really mattered most to me was that someone had a job. Our state was truly hurting in 2010, but I feel like I helped make things better for them. That’s all I ever really hoped to do, to serve and to help our people.”




The Alabama Department of Labor announced on May 19, 2017 a Statewide Unemployment rate of 5.4% for April 2017. On June 19, 2017 the Alabama Department of Labor announced a 16-year low rate of 4.9% for May 2017.


However, since those announcements the US Department of Labor has adjusted the

Unemployment Rate for Alabama at 5.0 for March 2017, 4.8 for April 2017 and 4.6 for May 2017.


Governor Bentley held Office until April 2017, yet never received a salary even when the State reached the goal of "Full Employment" in March 2017.





Source:

Al.com, May 19, 2017 “Alabama’s Unemployment Rate Lowest Since 2008”

Al.com, June 19, 2017 “Alabama’s Unemployment Rate Down to 4.9 Percent, Lowest

Since 2008”

MadeInAlabama.com July 7, 2016 “Wheels Up: New Video Captures Alabama

Aerospace Ascent”

MadeInAlabama.com, January 31, 2017 “Accelerate Alabama 2.0 Updates State

Strategic Growth Plan”

Department of Labor Bureau Statistics

Al.com “Guest Voices” August 2, 2014

Office of Governor Bentley Digital Archive –www.bentleyforalabama.org

2012 US Census

@GovRBentley Twitter Account

  • Bentley Administration Twitter