To continue manufacturing advance, Ky. needs workers

Kentucky has a long history of being home to a strong manufacturing sector. For example, the state boasts Toyota’s largest vehicle manufacturing plant in North America which — a quarter of a century, 10 million cars, and 7,000 jobs later — is still going strong.

However, despite this thriving industry, recently surveyed employers in the state are not confident they can quickly find workers to meet their needs and expansion plans, let alone recruit more manufacturing to the area.

That is why Kentucky’s leaders in business, government and education are strategizing new ways to educate and train workers for today’s jobs and provide proof of a robust talent pipeline to convince the next Toyota-type manufacturer to establish roots in the Bluegrass State.

To facilitate the conversation about what needs to be done, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet recently gathered policymakers, business owners, career and technical educators, and others to discuss concrete steps to improve the quality of the state’s workforce and enhance its competitive position at home and abroad.

On the agenda was a discussion of key findings and policy recommendations included in its report, “Kentucky’s Workforce Challenges: the Employer’s Perspective.” In particular, the Kentucky Chamber called for meaningful employer participation in developing state and local plans under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, asked the governor to set aside funds to support the development of employer-led workforce initiatives, and urged business organizations to develop working groups of employers to identify the skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

The Kentucky Chamber’s leadership in the workforce development space is laudable.

The U.S. Chamber knows that industries looking to expand their domestic operations and compete internationally need to be workforce ready. So, too, overseas companies exploring a move to the United States need to be convinced that the skilled workforce they seek is available and sustainable.

The nation has much to gain if this work, across all sectors, is done well. For example, let’s take a closer look at the opportunities manufacturing presents.

According to statistics posted by the National Association of Manufacturers and tracked by the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing supports an estimated 17.6 million jobs in the United States and about one in six private sector jobs.

More than 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing.

And, manufacturers in the United States are the most productive in the world, far surpassing the worker productivity of any other major manufacturing economy, leading to higher wages and living standards.

The good news for Kentuckians is that a lot of great work is under way.

For example, a coalition of business leaders in Kentucky organized a collaborative focusing on technical occupations in manufacturing.

Impact Northern Kentucky is now employing strategies to help its manufacturing industry evaluate demand planning needs, identify the competencies and credentials workers need to succeed, and better understand where current manufacturing employees are obtaining skills and experience.

Because of this work, the collaborative is already moving forward with a pilot training program for one of the critical technical occupations in manufacturing.

By breaking down existing communications barriers between government, industry and educational institutions, communities around the state and across the nation are tackling the growing demand for skilled workers. Only by working together can this work be done in a way that is sustainable long term.

Recognizing this potentially high impact but hard work, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation joined forces with USA Funds more than a year ago on a national initiative to leverage lessons learned from supply chain management.

Through a diverse mix of regional partners, including representatives from public organizations and boards, chambers and business associations, and leaders in manufacturing and energy, they are exploring ways to improve and strengthen the talent pipeline.

With millions of vacancies in the job market today, finding and developing qualified men and women to fill these positions is an urgent challenge for business and a crucial issue for our nation’s economic health. It’s hard work but made easier when everyone with a vested interest in the outcome is collaborating.

As with Impact Northern Kentucky, the chamber foundation is engaging leaders in local communities across America to tackle the skills gap head-on with smart, proven approaches.

Not only can this work serve to strengthen the local economy but, if brought to scale, will strengthen the overall economic security of America.

Jason Tyszko is senior director, policy and programs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.