By Greg Gapsis and Jack Mazurak, Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development
While no single state program can fill the private sector’s workforce needs, Kentucky leaders are confident their multi-faceted efforts implemented the past several years will provide the required long-term supply. In fact, Kentucky’s strategy is already paying off.
The Road to a Tight Labor Market is Paved in Recovery
Climbing out of the Great Recession and accelerating through nearly a decade of economic boom presented Kentucky – like many states – with a new hurdle. The better the economy, the scarcer the available employees.
That conundrum bottlenecked growth at many businesses, forcing them to compete for workers, regardless of skill or training. Simultaneously, businesses shopping for new locations ranked workforce availability as their top requirement. That environmental shift made Kentucky and its many communities recognize the need to up their workforce game.
Taking office in December 2015, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin brought his CEO acumen to the state’s workforce issues. His administration, often backed by the state’s General Assembly, rolled out a series of initiatives, programs and task forces. It promoted reforms to address Kentucky’s economy and build on existing successful efforts.
“Workforce development, at the end of the day, is the backbone of everything. We must, in the 21st century, make sure we equip Kentuckians with the training they need to work the jobs that exist,” Governor Bevin said.
Many of the new efforts put businesses at the center. They make companies active, committed partners in improving education and training programs − creating the custom-trained employees businesses need while providing rewarding careers for Kentucky residents.
Governor Bevin simultaneously urged collaborations that maximize efforts of government agencies and access to services, including a network of Kentucky Career Centers, career and technical education resources, as well as primary, secondary, and post-secondary education institutions.
And he enlisted the state Legislature’s new Republican majority to support workforce development initiatives. Those include:
- The Work Ready Skills Initiative, a $211 million-plus public/private investment to upgrade 40 training facilities statewide, increase enrollment and train workers for careers in five, high-demand sectors: advanced manufacturing, healthcare, IT/business services, construction trades and transportation/logistics.
- Dual Credit and Work Ready Scholarships, expand training and educational support for both high school students and early and mid-career workers.
- Expanding the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME). Through partnerships with 225 manufacturing-related companies and Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges, KY FAME offers students an apprentice-style education-and-training program. Sponsoring employers pay students to split each week between the classroom and the production floor. After five semesters, students earn an associate degree as an advanced manufacturing technician (AMT) to diagnose, repair and maintain factory systems. KY FAME recently added its 10th and 11th regional chapters.
- Strengthening and expanding apprenticeship programs to new sectors and, like the Justice to Journeyman program, to people in prison. The “Kentucky Trained. Kentucky Built.” program promotes apprenticeship and helped increase its Registered Apprenticeship programs to 206 with 259 companies. Those account for 3,400 active apprentices.
About prisoner training and re-integration, Governor Bevin said approximately 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released.
“Kentucky is going to lead the way for returning people back from the justice system into society in productive, useful, non-recidivist ways,” he said.
Any high school graduate can now receive two-year scholarships for training and education qualifying them for work within the five high-demand workforce sectors mentioned above.
To further grow the economy, the administration pushed existing programs like Work Ready Communities, where counties commit to rigorous standards to ensure a job-literate workforce, and Build-Ready sites that cut the location, permitting and construction times for new businesses.
In addition to streamlining access for businesses and job seekers through the KentuckyWorks.com network, the state, Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center and U.S. Chamber of Commerce are implementing a Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) program. TPM applies the KY FAME model to IT, healthcare, logistics, construction and finance.
Change Breeds Success
Complementing these efforts, Governor Bevin enthusiastically champions the benefits of locating in Kentucky. He and his economic development team travel extensively to encourage both domestic and foreign investment. The results are impressive. Over the course of three years, Kentucky attracted more investment than any previous four-year administration. The numbers include:
- 1,100-plus announced projects
- $18.1 billion in ongoing and planned investment
- 50,745 new full-time jobs announced for the coming years
- Record low unemployment
Kentucky’s labor force participation rate improved two percentage points the past couple years to 59.2 percent, pushing Kentucky closer to the 62.9 national average.
Classroom to Career
Countering the decades-long lack of focus on technical careers as valuable and honorable, schools and corporations statewide are implementing new initiatives.
Jefferson County Public schools recently announced a collaboration with General Electric Appliances in Louisville to start two programs. GEA2Day is an apprentice-like work-study program allowing high school students to emphasize career-focused courses and work two days a week at GEA while getting paid. The second program creates a virtual link for students to visit and interact with workers at the plant.
The South Central Kentucky Chamber of Commerce offers K-12 schools “The Leader in Me” program. It proved so successful that the Chamber developed a career academy program called SCK LAUNCH (Learning About Unique and New Careers Here).
“For three years now, 100 percent of our eighth graders have learned about all our key demand sectors, careers in those six sectors, what they pay and what the career ladder looks like. And then they all go to a hands-on career fair,” SCK Chamber CEO Ron Bunch said. “The first year we had 1,700 eighth graders go to SCK LAUNCH Experience. This year we’re getting close to 4,000 eighth-graders because we’ve got districts from outside the SCK ten-county region that want to bring their young people.”
The SCK Chamber administers the program locally and also made it available to Frankfort and Paducah schools.
Governor Bevin in 2017 created the Work Matters Task Force to address groups often left on the sidelines: military service veterans, people with disabilities, youth aging out of foster care, people returning from prison, and those dealing with substance abuse or addiction problems. In May 2018, the board of 23 professionals published its recommendations, including:
- Streamlining occupational licensing for veterans to ensure they receive credit for similar training and experience while serving in the military.
- Having the state serve as a model employer. In 2018, the Commonwealth transitioned management of two large state cafeterias to the Kentucky Office for the Blind.
- Raising resources for the Fostering Success program, which provides job opportunities for youth aging out of foster care. To expand the program, the 2018-2019 budget increased funding by $375,000 annually.
- Increasing general fund allocations to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and Office for the Blind to draw down full available federal match. The 2018-2019 state budget increased total funding by more than $9 million, which serves approximately 6,500 more clients.
- Partnering with school systems to ensure that students with disabilities are included in career readiness and development programs.
Moving forward, Governor Bevin will focus on modernizing the tax code, eliminating regulations hampering job creation, reforming the pension and criminal justice systems and making Kentucky “the gold standard for adoption and foster care.”
“It’s all about jobs. At the end of the day, people want opportunity and good things are happening in Kentucky,” he said. “And there’s good buzz. Other states hear it.”