Igniting Futures: The Power of High School Hires

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. [Jan. 29, 2024] - Across West Alabama, a quiet revolution is taking place—one that’s rewriting the norms of workforce development. At its heart lies the I.G.N.I.T.E. Student Employment Initiative, a beacon of opportunity for both local businesses and high school students, orchestrated by Tonya Mills, a retired educator turned Education and Employment Project Manager for West AlabamaWorks! at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama. 

Picture this: A small-town diner that once struggled to fill afternoon shifts now buzzes with energy, thanks to the infusion of young, motivated talent. Across town, a boutique clothing store not only meets but exceeds customer expectations, all thanks to the fresh perspectives and dedication of its high school recruits. 


It's no happenstance. The I.G.N.I.T.E. Initiative, part of West AlabamaWorks!, bridges the gap between eager high schoolers and businesses in need. As the driving force behind this initiative, Mills acts as a liaison between local schools and employers, matching students’ skills, and aspirations with the right opportunities. 


Northridge High School student Harley McNeal received several job offers at the I.G.N.I.T.E. Summer Student Job Fair in April 2023, and accepted an offer from Firehouse Subs in Northport. 


“My daughter loves working at Firehouse Subs,” said Rene McNeal, Harley’s mother. “I was impressed with how quickly Harley was able to start work and how valuable she has become to the business. Harley has learned a lot about responsibility, teamwork, and the importance of punctuality,” said McNeal. 


The benefits are palpable. Businesses gain fresh perspectives, enthusiastic energy, and a chance to mold future talent. On the flip side, students get a head start on their career journey, learning invaluable skills and gaining real-world experience. 


Bella Batista, general manager of family-owned Teriyaki Madness-Northport, is reaping the benefits of partnering with the I.G.N.I.T.E. Initiative. “I.G.N.I.T.E. is a great program that allows our local youth to find great job opportunities that build them for a brighter future,” said Batista. “Every individual that has come from I.G.N.I.T.E. is eager to learn and very adaptable. This program builds a foundation for their future personal life and work life. These individuals are given great responsibilities at a young age, creating a strong worker and individual. I am proud and grateful to use I.G.N.I.T.E.”


But it's not just about filling shifts or gaining work experience. It’s about nurturing the future workforce, instilling a sense of purpose and direction in young minds, and fostering a community that believes in the potential of its youth. 


Donny Jones, Executive Director of West AlabamaWorks!, points out that Alabama has the highest youth unemployment rate in the nation at 12.5%. “If we are going to decrease Alabama’s labor force non-participation rate, we must teach our students the value of employment at an early age and help them gain the skills needed to be a productive member of the workforce. This is the purpose of the I.G.N.I.T.E. Student Employment Initiative,” said Jones. 


The I.G.N.I.T.E. Student Employment Initiative is a partnership between West AlabamaWorks! and Tuscaloosa County Commission. 


“The Commission is pleased to continue our partnership with West AlabamaWorks! to develop innovative resources such as the I.G.N.I.T.E student jobs portal,” said Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Rob Robertson. “This first of its kind program has shown students are eager to work and we look forward to helping bridge that gap and connecting them to meaningful opportunities.”


The Tuscaloosa County Commission has solidified their commitment to the success of the I.G.N.I.T.E. Initiative by increasing funding so West AlabamaWorks! can provide every high school in Tuscaloosa County with an I.G.N.I.T.E. kiosk so students can easily access employment opportunities. “We hope these additional funds will assist our co-op teachers and career coaches in placing students in meaningful career pathways,” said Tuscaloosa County District 3 Commissioner Mark Nelson. 


So, how can your business be part of this transformative movement? It’s simple—partner with I.G.N.I.T.E. and post your jobs at https://www.wawstudentjobs.com/employer-information. 


Mills, with her wealth of experience in education, understands the pulse of these young talents. Her dedication ensures that the right students are matched with the right opportunities, ensuring a seamless transition into the workforce. 


To learn more, or for assistance, contact Tonya Mills at tonya@westalabamachamber.com or call (205) 391-0566

Let’s spark change, one opportunity at a time.


About the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama

The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama is a Tuscaloosa County-based pro-business advocacy organization serving more than 65,000 working men and women through more than 1,300 business enterprises, civic organizations and education institutions.

The mission of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama is to provide the leadership, vision and catalyst for the advancement of the economic prosperity, business climate and quality of life for the entire community.