For Eastern Kentucky, the statistics are as familiar as they are disheartening: Over half of coal-mining jobs gone in the last five years; one-quarter of residents living below poverty level; and average per-capita incomes stuck at a fraction of the rest of the nation.
Last year, numbers like these prompted a New York Times reporter to write that Eastern Kentucky "... just might be the hardest place to live in the United States. Statistically speaking."
But people are not statistics. If you don't live and work in Eastern Kentucky and know the people here, it can be difficult to imagine how things could change for the better. But, because of those people, the electric cooperatives serving Eastern Kentucky are convinced the region's future is bright. All that's lacking are the tools necessary for people — especially younger generations — to help themselves.
The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will grow 17 percent by 2018 — nearly double the growth for other fields. By 2018, the U.S. will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM jobs because of a lack of qualified workers.
Despite the skills shortages, few states have taken deliberate steps to truly build a talent pipeline. And employers have taken notice. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Eastern Kentucky.
Following the lead of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Kentucky's Touchstone Energy Cooperatives are working with the top STEM-based curriculum provider Project Lead The Way (PLTW), Morehead State University and the Kentucky Educational Development Corp. to help launch the STEM-Transforming Eastern Kentucky (STEM-TEK) initiative in a 19-county region.
Our vision is to create a skilled, knowledgeable workforce that can fill high-wage, high-demand jobs. Combined with ongoing efforts to establish high-speed broadband Internet access, this initiative knocks down barriers and creates building blocks for success. It holds the promise of training and keeping the best and brightest in this region.
It would begin with a full K-12 implementation of programs in Eastern Kentucky school districts. Over a three-year period, programs would be rolled out fully to 177 schools in the region, with financial and in-kind support, including curricula; classroom technology, equipment and supplies; and teacher professional development.
A vital component is preparing teachers. Therefore, 3,000 teachers will receive professional development and support. All must pass a rigorous professional development program. Upon certification, teachers will be given ongoing support, a network of peers and ongoing training.
Those teachers also will be encouraged to pursue national board certification. Completion of training through the Teacher Leader Master's Program will mean teachers will have national board certification, a master's degree and a pay increase equivalent to two rank changes or $6,000 to $8,000 annually, all at no cost to the teacher.
In return, participating teachers will enter into an agreement with sponsoring schools to secure three years of teaching, retaining the investment in the communities.
STEM-TEK leaders will work to ensure students may pursue their STEM degrees or certificates close to home. A readiness assessment will be conducted among area colleges and universities to verify the capacity for a substantial increase in number of students.
Should they lack the capacity to serve the newly developed student demand, leaders will work closely with the institutions to identify what may be done to improve vertical alignment and dual credit opportunities.
Having a skilled workforce will make Eastern Kentucky more attractive and competitive when employers in high-tech and other STEM fields look for desirable places to locate or grow businesses.
This is not a quick-fix. It's not a Band-Aid. It is a long-term effort to create a sustainable advantage for Eastern Kentucky to lure new jobs and investment. We're committed to making this initiative a success, but more partners are needed to invest time and resources along with skills and expertise.
If your company would like to become a partner in helping to create the building blocks for success in Eastern Kentucky, please contact Brad Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.