Kentucky politicians talk a lot about the need to create jobs. But a surprising new survey of 1,084 companies statewide shows that most of them have jobs available but can’t find enough skilled workers to hire.
What’s more, the survey released this week by the state Society for Human Resource Management shows that most of these companies expect at least moderate growth in the next three to five years, so they are likely to need even more workers.
Companies expecting growth include 86 percent of manufacturers, 70 percent of health care businesses and 80 percent of professional, scientific and technical services companies. But 84 percent of them said they are having trouble filling jobs.
The survey, titled “Bridging the Talent Gap,” found the biggest shortages are for medical professionals, engineers and skilled trades people, such as electricians and plumbers.
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“When compared to the rest of the country, more Kentucky companies say they are having trouble hiring the right skills or experience,” said Dan Ash, research director for The Graduate Network, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that conducted the survey.
Currently, 51 percent of Kentucky’s workforce has education beyond high school, compared to 60 percent nationally. More than 40 percent of the Kentucky companies surveyed said they need more employees with bachelor’s degrees, and a similar number said they needed more workers with industry or professional certifications.
The survey was unveiled Monday in Lexington at a meeting attended by more than 200 human resource professionals, and business and government leaders from across Kentucky.
Part of the problem is that Kentucky isn’t one economy, but a group of regional economies that vary greatly from “golden triangle” prosperity to depressed rural areas. That means workers are often not where the jobs are. They also have complications, including transportation and child care, that keep them from working or getting training they need to qualify for good jobs.
Another problem is that many working-age Kentuckians have quit looking for jobs. New research shows that if Kentucky’s “labor participation” rate of 57.6 percent were at the national average of 62.7 percent, an additional 165,000 Kentuckians would be employed, said David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Most companies weren’t critical of Kentucky schools. But the survey showed that partnerships between Kentucky companies and schools are well below the national average, although many employers that don’t now have partnerships said they were interested in creating them.
The survey also showed that Kentucky companies need to be more flexible and supportive of continuing education for their workers.
Kentucky companies also need to do a better job of creating work-based learning opportunities and reaching out not only to adult workers but to high school and even middle school students so they can visualize and begin preparing for career opportunities in the state.
Hal Heiner, secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said he thinks a big part of the solution is more student internships and apprenticeships, and he said state government plans more scholarship investments in them.
One bright note is the growth and optimism of Kentucky’s advanced-manufacturing sector, which many people see as an anchor for middle-class jobs in the future. But advanced manufacturing’s growth potential in Kentucky is being limited by the availability of skilled workers — and part of that is the industry’s fault.
“We’ve done a horrible job of basically marketing what we do in manufacturing,” said Kim Menke, a Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky executive who spends a lot of time working on workforce development efforts.
“A lot of folks still have the image that we’re dark, dirty and dangerous,” he said. “That was the ’50s and ’60s; it’s advanced manufacturing now. You can eat off the floor in a lot of manufacturing operations.”
The industry has begun addressing this issue with the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education and other initiatives that allow students to earn associate degrees in manufacturing technology through a combination of school and on-the-job training.
“We’ve got to open the doors,” Menke said. “For far too long, we’ve gotten comfortable just being that white box on the hill that has a fence around it and nobody knows what goes on there — but they pay good.”