Statewide initiative aims to reduce skills, labor gap

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - By September, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce plans to complete setup of a statewide initiative that takes aim at a problem experienced by employers across the economic spectrum — filling open jobs and retaining employees.


Kentucky is one of three states chosen by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation to create so-called talent pipeline management academies. The academies aim to reshape education around careers and jobs based on what employers need. In addition to Kentucky, other states are Tennessee and Michigan.


As part of the initiative, the Kentucky Chamber’s Workforce Center will create at least 20 field-specific academies over the next two years. Already, the Workforce Center has begun traveling the state to discuss the program and build the academies, which will primarily focus on construction, manufacturing, health care, logistics, business services/technology and equine services.


Representatives of the Workforce Center made a presentation to the Frankfort Area Chamber of Commerce and a number of schoolteachers on Wednesday.


Speaking about the program, Workforce Center Executive Director Beth Davisson said Kentucky’s workforce participation rate is among the reasons businesses have trouble filling jobs.


“It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re hovering around 4 to 5 percent (unemployment). We just can’t find the workers because there are no workers,’ ” Davisson said. “That’s not an accurate statement.”


May data — seasonally adjusted — from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Kentucky has a 59 percent labor participation rate. While that’s among the worst in the nation, the number has ticked up a couple of percentage points in recent years, leapfrogging states that include Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana.


In Wednesday’s presentation, Davisson said 81 percent of businesses in the Frankfort area project growth in the next three to five years and 76 percent are hiring full-time staff, but 83 percent indicate that they have difficulty finding qualified candidates.


“What we know now is that business and education have to come together in ways they never have before. We’re in a place we’ve never been, and we’re not going to go back to where we’ve come,” she said.


Reasons behind Kentucky’s relatively low rate include opioids and incarceration, Davisson said. They’re the big “pain points,” she said. Discussions on Wednesday also included hiring people with criminal backgrounds.


“Things like that tend to exclude a lot of people that may otherwise have the skills, but, hey, maybe they made a mistake 10, 15 or 20 years ago,” said Eduardo “Eddie” Martinez, business development manager for staffing and recruitment business at Hamilton-Ryker’s Versailles location.


Martinez said his company has a drug-free policy. If an applicant fails a drug screen, Martinez’s company won’t hire the person, but it doesn’t have a background policy and adheres to the policy of clients looking for employees.


Davisson said the talent pipeline management academies will “tap into” the population of Kentuckians recovering from addiction or trying to leave behind criminal backgrounds. Not all business can do that, but Davisson mentioned hospitality as an industry that’s done well to offer people “second chances.”


Another problem, and a more significant focus of the talent pipeline management academies, involves businesses working with schools to ensure students develop the right skills for available jobs.


She used an established manufacturing talent pipeline management academy in Hopkinsville as an example, saying that employers hadn’t communicated properly to nearby colleges that there wasn’t an engineering school that met the needs of employers.


“What do you think the college system said? ‘We can do that. We just needed to know,'” Davisson said.


Businesses must ensure statements about skills required or desired actually meet job responsibilities. She again used the Hopkinsville group as an example, saying manufacturers in the area said “soft skills” — showing up for work on time and dressing appropriately, for example — were most important, but not listed on job descriptions.


After Wednesday’s presentation, Martinez listed “soft skills” as the most important item in finding qualified job candidates. Thorn Hill Education Center Executive Director Rita Rector also mentioned them as important items for students to work on.


“We are really looking now at job placement and trying to get individuals in jobs after receiving their high school equivalency and additional training,” Rector said. “If people aren’t getting jobs, lots of times it’s because they don’t have the communication skills, they don’t have basic literacy skills in technology.”


The goal, Davisson said, is to make employers the “end customers” of the workforce and education system in Kentucky.

 

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