Partnership between businesses, educators critical to Kentucky’s economic success

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President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Dave Adkisson moderates the business panel.

“Workforce programs must be demand-driven, not supply-driven,” President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Dave Adkisson asserted while moderating a panel of regional business leaders at the 2013 Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education Trusteeship. Panelists, including Toyota’s Mike Price, Norton Healthcare’s Kim Tharp-Barrie, Bingham’s L. Tracee Whitley and Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Thomas O. Zawacki, discussed the growing symbiosis between businesses and higher education that is essential to meeting today’s economic needs.

Workforce demands have changed rapidly and substantially, Adkisson explained, noting that Louisville-based UPS now employs more people in one location than all of Kentucky’s coal companies combined. Creating jobs regionally and equipping workers to meet their requirements keeps Kentucky’s communities vital.

In order to fill the Commonwealth’s skilled-labor deficit, several Kentucky counties have partnered with the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board (KWIB) to obtain their Work Ready certification. The two-year certification process examines six critical factors: the county’s high school graduation rates, number of National Career Readiness Certificate holders, levels of community commitment, educational attainment and soft skills development, and the area’s information technology infrastructure.

“Work Ready is a great tool for existing businesses,” Zawacki said. “It demonstrates that a community is energized and has what it takes to provide an adequate workforce to companies who wish to move into the area.”

To further ensure that new hires are workforce-ready, many companies have directly partnered with regional educational institutions to teach students high-demand skills.

  • Since 2010, Toyota’s Georgetown facility has housed the Bluegrass Community & Technical College (BCTC) Advanced Manufacturing Center. As part of the BCTC Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program, students work at Toyota three days a week while learning job-specific skills at the center during the remaining two days. The innovative program was recently honored with the National Career Pathways Network’s 2013 Career Pathways Partnership Excellence Award.

“We identified the technical core areas we needed to work on to meet our manufacturing needs, and we built a whole curriculum around our gaps,” Price explained. “We have to model activity where industry and education work together to provide an avenue for those who want to take a different career path. If we can create a program that meets our needs and the workers’ needs, that’s a win-win situation.”

  • Norton Healthcare also shares resources with a variety of partners, improving future nurses’ employability by reviewing curriculum with nursing schools and helping high-risk high school students earn their Basic Life Skills (BLS) certifications. “We have to partner with future nurses on their journey so that, when they get to their employers, it doesn’t take them two years before they are productive,” Tharp-Barrie said, adding that good mentors are essential to producing good nurses.
  • In 2012, Bingham established its global services center in Lexington, and the law firm’s economic development team immediately began reaching out to the community’s post-secondary institutions. “We tapped into alumni networks to help us in our hiring process; we talked to faculty about curriculum development and setting up internships with us,” Whitley said. “It was a private partnership model from the beginning, and maintaining that level of engagement is at the top of our priority list.”

Despite the differences in their industries, every business needs employees who are, in the words of Tharp-Barrie, “smart, kind, nice people.” Whitley stressed that although proficient technical skills are important in today’s mechanized workforce, “soft skills” such as the ability to communicate, think critically and adapt to change, remain essential in today’s service-based economy. Tharp-Barrie noted that behavioral interviewing helps employers hire emotionally intelligent nurses, and Price added that diligent team players are always welcome in the workforce. By partnering early and often with educators, businesses can ensure that these crucial attributes are instilled in their future hiring pool.

“We compete globally on every level now,” Whitley said. “We need to take joint responsibility for training our workers from birth until death.”