Recently, KET aired a special program, Filling the Jobs Gap:  Building A Better Kentucky Workforce, centered on education and improving the job opportunities for all Kentuckians.

As a matter of public policy, the governor and General Assembly have inspired the Commonwealth to become laser-focused on increasing the size and skills of our workforce. New scholarships and other incentives are being created to get adults without a college credential back into industry-recognized certificate and associate degree programs at KCTCS. Paid apprenticeships and internships are increasing, help for the disabled and incarcerated to get back into the workforce is expanding, as is access for all to quality jobs in advanced manufacturing, data centers, transportation, health care, the building trades, and others.

KET’s program wonderfully highlights these new resources and new energy being applied to these vital efforts. But the program only tells part of the story.

The program and much of the public discussion around workforce development tends to ignore our baccalaureate and research institutions of higher education and the essential contributions they play in developing a strong workforce, building our economy and making Kentucky a more vibrant and competitive state. We know that employers want people who can think critically, solve problems, communicate clearly and effectively, and work collaboratively—all skills developed through a quality postsecondary education.

Kentucky needs higher levels of education and training at all levels: more people with industry-recognized certificates in high demand workforce areas, as well as more people with associate degrees, bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D.’s. A simple look across the nation shows that states with the highest per capita income also have the most highly educated and well-trained workforces.  Not coincidentally, the citizens in these states also have better health, lower incarceration rates, less unemployment, and greater innovation and entrepreneurial capacity.

Our universities are educating students for current and future market demands. As important, they attract diverse, talented faculty, and students from all over the world. In turn, these clusters of bright, talented people create the building blocks for inventions and discoveries that translate into new companies, new products, services, and new middle and high wage jobs.

Kentucky must develop a nimble workforce prepared for the challenges of both today’s economy and the economy and jobs of the future. We need a workforce capable of competing in a global marketplace. To that end, the Council on Postsecondary Education, with the collaboration and support of our colleges and universities, has established an ambitious goal to help Kentucky position itself as a leader in this new economy.

By the year 2030, at least 60 percent of working-age Kentuckians will have earned a postsecondary credential—whether a certificate, associate, bachelor or graduate degree. That means that if we reach our goal, by 2030 an additional 300,000 working age Kentuckians will have earned a postsecondary credential and be better positioned to support their families, contribute to their communities, and achieve a higher quality of life. In setting this goal, Kentucky joins states like Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, and others that have put the same priority on ensuring a greater percentage of their citizens earn a postsecondary certificate or degree.

Why is this goal important? The numbers speak for themselves.  At the beginning of this year Kentuckians with only a high school diploma had an unemployment rate two and half times greater than someone with a bachelor’s degree. Kentucky families headed by college graduates have incomes 56 percent higher than families headed by high school graduates.

The widely respected Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce published a report last year that dramatically illustrates how much better college-educated adults fared during and since the Great Recession:

  • Workers with only a high school diploma lost 5.6 million jobs during the recession and gained only 80,000 new jobs in the recovery, for a net loss of 5.5 million jobs.
  • Workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher actually gained 187,000 jobs during the recession and have added 8.4 million in the recovery, for a total of nearly 6 million new jobs.

If Kentucky wants a competitive, innovative economy, education is the key. While certificate and associate level postsecondary education is essential, particularly in meeting the urgent demand for middle skilled positions, we must also recognize and value the broad spectrum of postsecondary education necessary to drive our economy and make Kentucky the best version of itself.

If I had to sum up my recent campus tour of Somerset Community College in one word it would be “impressed.”

In fact, I was very favorably impressed with the array of quality programming and how the college is working with key industries to align its curriculum to meet the workforce needs of employers. I saw this commitment in action with visits to the Lineman Training Center, 3D printing technology lab, and the physical therapy and nursing programs.

The Lineman Center’s eight-week certificate program has 700 graduates. Shown is Coordinator Dean Rhodes and Bob King.

The Lineman Training Center is evidence of a college seeing a need in an entire industry and coming up with a solution, as well as creating job opportunities in a field that pays well. The center is attracting students from multiple states for the eight-week certificate program.

With applications for 3D printing technologies rapidly expanding in the biomedical, manufacturing and transportation industries, the college stepped to the forefront to meet another workforce need by creating a certificate in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, and a 3D printing technology lab. This cutting-edge industry is expected to grow in Kentucky, particularly because the state is a major exporter of aircraft and automotive parts.

The physical therapy associate program is an extremely competitive program and is one of only three in the state. Along with the nursing program, these graduates go right into the workforce in high-demand occupations. Both are well-known for providing high-quality academic preparation for careers.

King described his meeting with these students as inspiring.

Another very enjoyable highlight of the day was interacting with students since I rarely have that opportunity as president of a state agency. Most of the SCC students I spoke with were adults beginning college or returning. I was so very inspired by their personal stories, ambitions, and the fact that they chose to pursue education when most have competing responsibilities with family and work schedules.

It was clear to me that Somerset Community College and President Jo Marshall enjoy broad support from their elected officials, local workforce and business leaders. Meetings with faculty and staff and the leadership team were also insightful and encouraging.

However, a key challenge for these leaders moving forward, and for SCC, is to raise the educational attainment in their region. Kentucky’s attainment is lower than the national average, and the Somerset region’s attainment is lower than the Kentucky average. I hope these leaders, joined with faculty and parents, will find innovative ways to encourage more high school graduates and adults in their region to pursue additional education. It is so critical for the students’ future employability, and the viability of both the regional and state economy depend on it.

Bob King is the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. His visit to Somerset Community College was a personal goal to spend a full day learning about each of the 16 colleges within KCTCS. Two campus tours remain: Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College at the Middlesboro and Pineville campuses Nov. 9 and Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg Nov. 28.