What Happens Now?
Advice for building our post-COVID economy
Birmingham’s future looks brighter now that the threat of COVID-19 is subsiding. But the pandemic left deep holes in our community, from lost jobs and income to shuttered businesses—many of them small and minority-owned companies. Three local leaders share their unique insights on the fallout and suggest strategies to create a stronger, more inclusive, more vibrant economy.
When consumer confidence, foot traffic, events, etc. were eliminated or diminished, the businesses that relied on that kind of activity suffered the consequences. Some people decided to end their entrepreneurial quest. Many small businesses can close silently.
We managed the BhamStrong loan program for the city and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. We loaned roughly $2 million to about 90 licensed businesses. We also established a hotline for businesses and nonprofits about accessing help provided by the CARES Act and other organizations. We work with the Small Business Administration (SBA), so we were familiar with the economic injury disaster loans and paycheck protection loans. In addition, we are an SBA-certified development company with about 200 small businesses in our portfolio. We worked to make sure they understood the special programs that SBA offered.
The biggest challenge going forward is the ability to access credit. Hopefully the banking community reassesses creditworthiness and allows some entrepreneurs who were doing OK to get back in the game. Access to capital through loans will be important. Maybe we can come up with creative ways to recapitalize some firms that were damaged due to COVID.
Access to coaching, training, and management and technical assistance—like what we provide at the Birmingham Business Resource Center—also will be important. More providers of assistance and information for small businesses will be needed. Community support can put all of us in a better position to assist a larger number of businesses in an integrated way.
I will know the economy is better when we add back some companies we lost. For example, if we lost 40 percent of small, minority-owned businesses, then adding back 10 or 15 percent is a sign of recovery. I also look for optimism—when business owners are willing to take on more risk and invest in growth, such as trying to borrow money to expand, buy a building or equipment, or add a location.
Leadership Birmingham provided the opportunity to hear differing opinions with empathy. It’s always good to disagree with somebody and then share a glass of wine with them. We should do more of that.
Employment, especially for people in lower-wage and service-sector jobs, took a big hit during the pandemic. We still see an increased number of unemployed people and those who are frightened or too vulnerable to return to jobs they had before. We face a big challenge to focus more on the development of the people we serve to help prepare them for jobs that may be more secure and earn higher wages.
People with disabilities and with other barriers to employment, such as people reentering society from the correctional system, are largely left out of most workforce development efforts. This needs to change.
We have added job-readiness classes because the demand is similar to before, but COVID protocols mean we can safely accommodate only four participants in our classroom at a time. We also provide jobs and paid training to participants by completing outsourced handwork for business customers. We have seen a huge increase in kitting jobs, usually for companies sending care packages or special deliveries to associates or customers working from home.
We also are rebooting our own social enterprise. We have rebranded Avondale Mercantile as WE Made, and we are launching a line of baking mixes made as part of a 20-week workforce development program in cooperation with the City of Birmingham’s BOLD grant initiative, with additional support from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, and the Alabama Power Foundation. This is an opportunity for WE Inc. to help more people who need our services while developing additional, sustainable revenue for the organization.
Poor public transportation options are one of the biggest barriers faced by the people we serve who are seeking jobs, and the pandemic worsened the problem because city buses filled to only half capacity. On some days, workers whose shifts ended at 3:00 p.m. couldn’t get a bus until 7:00 p.m. due to capacity. Improving public transportation could be one of the most significant resources to help elevate lower-income people.
Leadership Birmingham taught me that the city’s problems were not created overnight, and solutions also will not come overnight. But when the right community leaders band together, great change can happen, Throughout the pandemic, I have been heartened by many examples of leadership. The relationships I made through Leadership Birmingham also have helped sustain me, both in moral support and through my classmates’ generosity to WE Inc.
Engineers were considered essential workers in Alabama, and having a backlog of projects meant a firm would likely make it to 2021. COVID impacted my firm when municipalities initially shut down and payments for our services stopped. Later in the pandemic, we were affected when projects were delayed or canceled.
Now the challenge is that minority-owned businesses are competing for a smaller pool of projects with non-minority firms. In some cases, teaming with a non-minority firm may be ideal if the solicitor requires or recommends a minority participation goal; however, as fewer projects become available, companies think of employing their own engineers first. This means that the scope of work for minority firms will be significantly reduced to almost an afterthought unless organizations and governments are intentional about the inclusion of minority-owned businesses.
Birmingham’s economy can rebound by working with local small and minority-owned businesses first. Leaders must rethink how products and services are procured and create new programs as needed, with a focus on keeping these businesses sustainably employed. Non-minority engineering firms also have the opportunity to embrace systemic change, be intentional, and fully embrace inclusion, equity, and collaboration with minority-owned firms.
Leadership Birmingham heightened my awareness of social and economic disparities. During the pandemic, I asked myself how I could continue serving the community and navigate the chaos. The lesson that helped the most was to be bold like the civil rights Foot Soldiers, by not allowing today’s circumstances to taint my perspective and hope for tomorrow.
Last year handed all of us our share of challenges, but if you are reading this article today, then you found a way to survive. Thriving is just around the corner. Do not give up hope. I’m proud of you for successfully adapting to change. You’ve got this!