Is the perception of an under-educated workforce hurting Kentucky?

Thomas Erekson
Thomas Erekson

What is the connection between a college education and the strength of Kentucky’s workforce? For a sampling of how Kentucky’s state institutions of higher learning are bridging academia and industry, Tom Martin talked with Thomas Erekson, dean of the college of business and technology at Eastern Kentucky University.

Q: A recently released study by 24/7 Wall Street looks at how the business climate of the 50 states are perceived. The view of Kentucky is not a pretty picture. Kentucky ranked as the fifth least business-friendly state among the 50. And according to the report’s editor, a primary reason is the perception of an undereducated workforce. Would you agree with that assessment?

A: Well, it’s a real concern in terms of the level of education of Kentuckians. I’ve lived in the state about four years, moving here from Illinois. And before I left Illinois, they had a goal to get 60 percent percent of the working population to have an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree, or higher.

And I came to Kentucky and I didn’t hear that type of encouragement and that concerned me. At the same time, as I’ve worked with employers throughout the state that are looking for management, leadership and engineering talent and the like for their businesses, there’s a concern that they cannot attract the level of talent that they need — to rural Kentucky, in particular. That’s a real challenge that’s out there.

Q: I wonder about the message that we’re sending: that we want to be the state that can paint your car bumper, or move a box from point A to point B, or extract a resource out of the ground. Those jobs don’t always require a degree. But do we signal that you should move your business here because we’re innovative or that we want to solve big problems? Those jobs do require education up to and beyond a bachelor’s degree. Could we have a problem with how we signal what we value?

A: I really think we do have that problem. It’s not intended. This is an unintended consequence of what appears to me to be a major emphasis on workforce development for advanced manufacturing workers, which we need, given our location, as a supply chain state.

There is no doubt that one of the strategic things about Kentucky and its economy is its location in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. We really can be a supply chain state, given UPS, Amazon, and four auto assembly plants. But what’s the unintended message when we focus on manufacturing workers as opposed to engineering, management, accounting and even bank management or insurance talent?

Q: Is there collaboration, or cooperation among the business schools at the various state universities across Kentucky? Do you all find yourselves around the table now and then?

A: Yes. There is a group in Kentucky of the public university business deans. A lot of times we’ll do a conference call. We have met in the past just to kind of compare notes. It’s a great network. I just picked up the phone and called Bob Albert out at Morehead and gotten a response or Scott Cox over at Western Kentucky. It’s a really good collaborative group. We’re competitors, but we’re very friendly competitors.

Q: There are projections that in 10 years from now, by around 2028, nearly half of the American workforce will be independent contractors. How are you preparing a graduating workforce for that kind of future?

A: We talk about soft skills. What really makes the difference in the graduate is the ability to have those soft skills. Now, in the old days, the soft skills were, ‘Do you know how to dress for the interview? Do you know how to write a resume? And, do you know which fork to use when you go out to dinner when you’re interviewing or when you’re out with a client, and the like?’

Soft skills are different than what I’ve thought of before. Soft skills are things like the ability to participate on a team, to lead a team, but also following a team. There are all of the other networking skills, but it’s a little different in terms of entrepreneurial skills and this concept of ‘design thinking’, being able to look broadly at things, to do lateral thinking.

Q: What is lateral thinking?

A: When I talk with students, I always ask what they’re reading. And the reason I ask that, there was a study of scientists done a long time ago at one of the national labs. They wanted to find out why some scientists and engineers were very creative and some were not as creative, but were very good at getting the job done, and then some just weren’t good at anything.

And what they found is the most creative scientists and engineers read extensively and broadly outside of their disciplines. They were very broad and they could draw connections laterally, which is where innovation happens. The engineers and scientists who were very good at getting a job done, they found they read extensively, but narrowly, within their discipline. And then those who weren’t good at either, they found out they don’t read much. So, I share that with students and I say you need to read extensively broadly to better prepare yourself.

Q: What about your work do you enjoy most?

A: You know, I hated high school. I actually thought about dropping out once, but I knew my parents would kill me. I didn’t start college until I was 21 and I fell in love with it. I’ve been working in higher ed for 40 years. I love everything about it. It’s exciting to be a facilitator and that’s how I view myself as dean. I have passionate faculty who are the champions.

As dean, my job is to encourage people, to facilitate things so that those passionate champions can make things happen. And that’s the most exciting thing to me: to see the faculty being successful and fulfilling our mission of changing lives and launching careers.

Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to it, find the podcast on The interview will air on this week’s edition of Eastern Standard, Thursday at 11 am on 88.9 WEKU.