Today’s Skills for Today’s Workers

Using P3 leverage, Kentucky Work Ready Skills Initiative gets traction aligning training with needs

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

A rendering from Omni Architects of its design for a training floor on the $24 million Advanced Manufacturing Information Technology Center.

A $150 million investment from the private sector, 40 new public/private partnerships, and 30,000 new seats for technical training are three of the early benefits coming from the Kentucky Work Ready Skills Initiative (KWRSI).

Funded by the 2016 General Assembly, KWRSI – Kentucky’s $100 million investment in the state’s workforce – is the largest investment of its kind anywhere in the country, according to Hal Heiner, who previously served as secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet before accepting an April 16 appointment to the Kentucky Board of Education.

“We intend to make Kentucky the manufacturing and logistical center of excellence in America,” Heiner said when announcing KWRSI’s creation with Gov. Matt Bevin. “This will start with having the most highly skilled and well-trained workforce in the country. To accomplish this, we will better align our education systems and our workforce needs. This is exactly why we have created the Work Ready Skills Initiative.”

In the past two years, KWRSI has approved 40 projects, all designed to expand workforce technical training and upgrade equipment and facilities in the state’s top five business growth sectors: advanced manufacturing; business services and information technology (IT); construction trades; health care; and transportation and logistics.

The projects were selected during competitive application processes in 2016 and 2017.


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In 2016, the 10-member Work Ready Skills Initiative Advisory Committee awarded $65.5 million to 25 projects. These first-round awards leveraged $84.5 million in matching resources: approximately $64.1 million in cash and $20.4 million in-kind.

In 2017, a second round of competition dispersed $33.1 million in bond money to 15 additional projects, leveraging another $27.22 million in matching funds: $17 million-plus in cash and more than $10 million in-kind. Proposals came from numerous workforce areas, addressing a wide array of key industry sectors, including manufacturing, health, technology, transportation and trades.

Private and public involvement is key

Each of the projects must follow several criteria such as public/private collaboration.

While serving in the cabinet, Heiner said, he received texts every Saturday from employers and high school and community college educators gathered around a table working together. This collaborative approach is one of the ways KWRSI is intentionally putting educators and employers on the same team with the same goal: better-trained employees who draw more businesses to the state and help businesses already here expand.

“One of the great outcomes from the competition for funding is that some teams have expanded beyond a single county,” Heiner said.

He cited the Western Kentucky Partnership, which was awarded $3.04 million and has a $337,778 match. Employers in the area joined with 12 Purchase-area school districts, West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Murray State University, UK Engineering (in Paducah) and others to purchase updated equipment and provide for the training needs of the Purchase region in all five core Kentucky sectors.

They will train 455 adults and 2,326 students annually, an increase in training capacity by 448 and 269 respectively.

Each year, the partnership expects 976 students and adults to earn postsecondary or dual credits, 882 to pass the Kentucky Occupational Skills Standards Assessment (KOSSA) and/or the ACT WorkKeys skills assessment, 488 to earn other types of certifications, 65 to be involved in apprenticeships, and 30 to graduate from the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) program, a partnership of regional manufacturers that have implemented career pathway, apprenticeship-style educational programs.

“These kinds of partnerships, especially with the private-sector involvement, will bear fruit for a long time,” Heiner said. “It used to be that a flat piece of land and a free building was the way to attract business. Today a trained workforce is the way.”

Public/private collaboration is also required when it comes to funding.

“Applicants for KWRSI funding are required to provide at least a 10 percent match by local partners,” Heiner said, “but many of the projects have far exceeded that.”

For example, KWRSI awarded the KentuckianaWorks partnership in Louisville $15.2 million to construct an advanced manufacturing center on the Jefferson Community and Technical College campus. Heiner said he expects the partnership’s private-sector match to top $30 million.

His expectation is that the projects will garner a collective $150 million in private-sector funds to match the state’s $100 million KWRSI investment over the next 24 months.

The advanced manufacturing facility is an example of how the projects lead to those sought-after employees. The new center will house flexible labs, classrooms and support areas, and will free up space to expand JCTC automotive technology programs. Expected to open in early 2020, the facility will provide equipment and space to train 2,752 adults and 750 students annually.

Collectively, the 40 projects will add more than 30,000 new technical training seats annually across the state.

“To put that in perspective,” Heiner said, “the Future Skills report from the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics just came out. It shows that Kentucky will need to fill 80,000 jobs (annually) for the next five years. We are only graduating 50,000 from high school each year.”

High demand and good pay

The need for KWRSI can be seen not only in raw statistics but by economic sector as well. Consider just the construction trades and narrow that down even more to just the construction trades in Northern Kentucky.

There alone, the construction trades – carpentry, electric, HVAC, plumbing, masonry, facilities maintenance and welding – need 4,995 new and replacement workers each year, according to Brian Miller, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky (HBA), which operates the Enzweiler Building Institute.

Miller said the industry is currently experiencing the greatest need for skilled construction-trade workers since the years immediately following World War II – yet only 700 people statewide are presently enrolled in construction-trades training.

KWRSI awarded the HBA partnership $2.69 million to address this gap in Northern Kentucky. The funds will be used to rehabilitate, repurpose, expand and equip the Enzweiler Building Institute in Erlanger, and to rehabilitate and equip a second location in Alexandria.

The expanded Institute building will include masonry and welding labs as well as a lab for heavy diesel mechanics. The existing carpentry shop will double in size. A large events center will be repurposed to subdivide the space into four separate classrooms. The building will be renovated to accommodate greater attendance, and technology added throughout will include large smart boards, television displays and state-of-the art projection systems. The partnership also plans to purchase materials and tools for adult evening trades training – HVAC and plumbing, electric, carpentry, welding and masonry – at the Campbell County Area Technology Center in Alexandria.

“Although the project is about the facility, programming is what was important to the KWRSI committee,” Miller said. “We plan to create a career pathway in facilities maintenance. We will also partner with area technology centers to feed young people into the technology center. We will be able to reach down to high school juniors and seniors. That will give them dual credit to go on and get an associate’s degree in whatever they choose.

“We need people to fill all kinds of jobs, including business management. A lot of company owners are retiring or leaving. These careers pay good money and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. They can start out earning $40,000 to $60,000. Construction management pays around $95,000. This is a great time for young people. They can jump into upper-middle-class wage jobs with zero college debt.”

First sets of trainees making an impact

This process does not have to take a long time, either, according to Heiner.

“Since we awarded the first Kentucky Work Ready Skills Initiative projects a year ago, the pace of activity across Kentucky in schools, training centers, and business and industry has been remarkable,” Heiner said. “It is astounding how quickly the KWRSI investment in training is making a difference in preparing Kentuckians for careers in high-demand technology fields. The ripple effect we are seeing in communities is exactly what we were hoping for when we envisioned this initiative, and this is just the beginning.”

Eric Keeling, principal at Warren County Area Technology Center (ATC), said its $557,726 KWRSI grant has already made an impact.

“Because of the new equipment, we have been able to step up to advanced robotics, machining, welding and automotive, and have a new computer lab,” Keeling said. “Companies are seeing the new equipment and the quality of the program, and they are donating equipment and starting more apprenticeships. The grant has been a godsend for our students. The award has reinforced a culture of excellence, respect, integrity, character, commitment and leadership in our students and program.”

In Northern Kentucky, the Freestore Foodbank is using its $267,000 KWRSI award to train and certify unemployed and underemployed adults in the warehousing and logistics field through its free, 10-week LIFT the TriState program. The program couples hands-on training with classroom curriculum at Gateway Community and Technical College so that students graduate with credentials in logistics, power equipment, forklift and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

All graduates from the project’s first class have secured jobs, with pay starting between $14 and $17 per hour plus full benefits. A second class recently graduated.

“The Work Ready Skills Initiative that Gov. Bevin promoted through these grants really allowed us to jumpstart the LIFT the TriState program to where it is right now,” said Kurt Reiber, president and CEO of Freestore Foodbank. “We would not have been able to provide the equipment and the racking system for our students to be able to get real hands-on experience in the logistics area without this funding,”

LIFT the TriState student Sheba Roberson, who is in the second class of trainees, was certified in forklift in just a few weeks, even though she cannot drive a car. The program has boosted her self-confidence.

“I love the hands-on experience that we get from the teachers. Everything we do brings me a step closer to my goal of having a career,” Roberson said.

The Brighton Center in Newport is using its $227,213 KWRSI grant to upgrade equipment to train students for health care as well as business and computer technology careers.

“Kentucky Work Ready has been an incredible opportunity for us to actually start a new skill and enhance our current skills in medical assisting and business and computer technology,” said Talia Frye, director of workforce innovation  for Brighton’s Center for Employment Training (CET).

For student Rachael Schleper, who is training for a position in health technology and administration, preparing for a new career has been a family endeavor. Schleper accompanied her 21-year-old son to the Kentucky Career Center, where they toured Brighton’s Center CET and both enrolled in classes.

“I didn’t realize how many opportunities were available for adults who have children and want to brush up on their skills and need an opportunity because they don’t have skills for the workplace today,” Schleper said. “They focus on your career but also your mental health. They want to support you in every area of your life, not just learning a new skill, and I really appreciate that. ”

Expected to bear fruit long term

Frye said the KWRSI grant is meeting a rapidly growing workforce demand in the health-care field.

“In our region, health care is so important to the vitality of our community. In fact, the largest employer in Northern Kentucky is St. Elizabeth Healthcare: They employ over 8,000 people,” Frye said. “Medical assisting is the second most in-demand occupation in Northern Kentucky, and it is the start of a great pathway because you can stack your education and credentials to move farther along and that’s important.”

Allen County Career and Technical Center received a $328,700 KWRSI grant to purchase equipment for the school’s automotive, IT, welding, industrial maintenance and nursing programs.

“Training on new equipment gives students a step up when they go to job interviews because they are using the same equipment in high school as the modern equipment in manufacturing jobs,” said Brian Carter, assistant superintendent of operations at Allen County Schools.

Because of the grant, the career and technical center is now offering night classes for adults who want to obtain certified nursing assistant (CNA) credentials.

“Since this process began in 2016, the committee has reviewed the requests of more than 150 applicants, covering the majority of our counties,” Heiner said. “This program will bear fruit long after it ends, giving students the means to find jobs in a world exploding with technology.

“The economic future of Kentucky is bright. As we develop an employer-led skill and career development system, we move away from the old days of train and pray that the training might lead to a job to a strategic plan equipping Kentuckians and industries with the skills to compete globally and build a stronger Kentucky economy.”

For more information about KWRSI and the projects, go to: educationcabinet.ky.gov.


Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]

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