How will $1.2 billion a year for workforce and education training be used? Like this.

Beth Davisson, executive director of the Workforce Center at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Beth Davisson, executive director of the Workforce Center at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Provided

Beth Davisson, executive director of the Workforce Center at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, was on the steering committee that created the KentuckyWorks Collaboration.

It’s the latest effort to align workforce skills with available jobs in the Commonwealth.

Question: On January 7th, Gov. Matt Bevin signed an executive order creating a collaborative effort to create strategies to improve Kentucky’s workforce development. Why is this needed?

Answer: We’re at a place and time where businesses can’t find the skills they need.

These recommendations are completely business driven. And the reason that’s so critical is that if you’re going to skill up and educate a workforce, shouldn’t it be done in the way that Kentucky’s economy needs?

The KentuckyWorks Collaborative is made up of key Kentucky businesses, educators and workforce providers who took direct responsibility for creating this plan.

Q: How broad would you say the skills deficit is in Kentucky?

A: The skills deficit is big all across America. In Kentucky specifically it’s pretty big. The Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management recently polled human resource leaders across Kentucky and what they found is that 84 percent of Kentucky businesses are ramping up for some sort of moderate to high growth in the next three to five years.

We have about $10 billion in new economic developments that are coming into the state. That’s thousands and thousands of new jobs. Of the 84 percent of Kentucky businesses that said they’re ready to grow, 81 percent of them said they can’t find the talent they need.

Q: Let’s talk about some of the objectives of the plan.

A: First, education. For so long we’ve operated in our own boxes. We have K-through-12 in one, the education happens after you graduate from high school in another, and then you have employers in another box. That’s not really the way to build a healthy workforce system.

Employers have to get much more engaged in the K-through-12 and postsecondary systems so that our kids and our adults are being skilledup for the jobs that matter the most. We recently looked at a study that shows that most Americans regret their post-secondary choices. Over 51 percent of Americans, if they could, would go back and get a different degree.

What they did find is that the students that are in K through 12 who got some sort of work-based learning experience, who engaged with employers and got advice from a manager on what to study after high school, those are the happiest consumers of postsecondary. The unfortunate part is that businesses just don’t really get engaged in our high schools.

Technology is disrupting the talent marketplace at a rate that we cannot understand. Jobs for 65 percent of the kindergarteners sitting right here in Lexington today aren’t even created yet.

Q: How do we have the prescience for high school students to be able to graduate and enter into college with some grasp of where the world will be when they enter the workforce?

A: Employers have to be engaged much sooner in the process. We’re no longer in a model where you go to school then you get out and work. We’re becoming a society that’s earn and then learn and then go earn and learn some more.

The truth is that employers will know what those jobs are well before our educators do, so it’s not fair to continue to put all the pressure on educators without businesses showing them the new roles and the new skills needed out there in the talent marketplace.

Q: How can employers get involved?

A: One, I would highly recommend thinking of the workforce differently. Kentucky is mainly made up of small to medium size businesses, so employers need to be thinking of going into schools as a way to build a talent pipeline. It’s a business strategy. Employers that are working with students from a younger age, they’re starting to see the results of training, educating and skilling talent when they’re more raw and younger.

An example is the construction industry in Central Kentucky, how many electricians are going to be needed in two years? Where do you get your greatest sources of talent? We found 50 percent of the best talent comes straight out of high school.

Q: Science, technology, engineering, and math — STEM disciplines — seemed to receive priority status in efforts to integrate post-secondary education and workforce development. But, don’t employers also need people who have a solid grounding in general education and soft skills such as problem solving and communication?

A: That is the number one workforce issue in our state and in our country. Kentucky Chamber members will tell you time and time again, they can train a technical skill or ability, but if they have an employee that can’t pass the drug screen, who can’t be a part of a team, that doesn’t show up for work on day two, or have some sort of grit, there’s nothing they can do.

So, this lack of soft or “central skills” as we call them at the Chamber is something that’s really plaguing our workforce. The Kentucky Chamber was super proud to stand up last year and get passed “essential skills” legislation. From kindergarten to 12th grade in Kentucky public schools, it’s mandated that our schools teach these central skills.

So, in kindergarten, essential skills might look like a student coming into the classroom and shaking a hand and looking their teacher in the eye. In high school that can look like a job shadow, an internship, a work-based learning experience of some sort to reinforce those essential skills.

Q: Liberal arts and the humanities have almost been kicked to the curb in recent years, but aren’t things that come out of those disciplines — critical thinking, civic engagement, appreciation for the arts and the humanities — as important to success as proficiency in a STEM discipline?

A: Absolutely. I don’t personally ever want to live in a world where there are no dreamers or philosophers. We also need to change the rhetoric. I think for so long we’ve taught ourselves that we have to have a four-year degree. Meanwhile, electricians make $100,000 and don’t need a degree. We don’t need one or the other. We’ve got to get balance.

Q: How about the alignment or resources?

A: We have $1.2 billion a year for workforce and education training so it’s not a lack of resources to train and skill-out Kentuckians, but how we spend that money in a way that trains and skills-up our citizens in ways businesses need.

We tend to operate in pockets. This plan is going to bring all those resources together and measure them. By early February we’re going to have a state dashboard that will be visible to the public that shows performance metrics on how that $1.2 billion is getting spent. And that collaborative group can look at those metrics and build upon what’s going well and call for change and action in those areas that need improvement.

Q: And, for its part, higher education is embracing performance funding which also provides the metrics that can tell the public what’s being accomplished. But we are underfunding our public higher education and as a result it’s becoming more and more unaffordable for too many would-be students. Is this collaborative going to look at that?

A: Yes, I think that’s going to be one of the great byproducts of this. Kentucky is a poor state. It’s very hard for us to pay our debt, so unfortunately cuts have to happen. And I do think that education is having to shoulder a lot of that and there needs to be some balance. We’ve put so much on teachers.

So, how do we as a community step up and help our educators? When you say “it takes a village,” that’s a true statement. We all have to get involved and that includes the private sector taking a much more visible role in how we work to support and educate our children.