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Building a Better Workforce

Bowling Green’s Chamber has led an effort to put business skills at the center of the school curriculum

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

Bowling Green’s Chamber has led an effort to put business skills at the center of the school curriculum.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at initiatives in Kentucky to make real-world job skills a bigger part of the education curriculum

Back in 2013, when the issue was only a faint blip on national business radars, Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Ron announced that creating a sufficient and trained workforce was the region’s top priority. The chamber not only foresaw the need and the consequences of not acting, it joined forces with the business and educational communities to create a multifaceted plan.

Few today question that Bunch and his colleagues were right. The issue is now more on the level of an earthquake as communities grapple with how to grow without that trained workforce in place.

And although Bowling Green remains ahead of the curve and a model for others, they are not immune to the ever-increasing need for trained workers either, especially as the massive baby boomer population begins to retire.

“We typically have 6,000 jobs open in our 10-county area,” Bunch said.

Where will the employees come from to fill those jobs and many more in the future? In Bowling Green, they believe the answer is young people already in the area.

Career planning in pre-K?

“What do you want to be when you grow up?…”

Ask a child in Warren County that timeless question and you may be surprised at the depth and breadth of the answer and the thought that has already gone into the decision – even if you are asking a kindergarten student.

The reason is a multifaceted program called South Central Kentucky Learning About Unique and New Careers Here, or SCK LAUNCH. It is the community’s “urgent call to action” that started in 2013, according to Bunch. SCK LAUNCH is a partnership between the Bowling Green Area Chamber, the Bowling Green Independent School District, Warren County Public Schools and local businesses.

The program has as many tentacles as an octopus, but the main thrust is meeting the workforce needs of local employers and future employers by helping local students explore their interests, experience relevant work and connect with the real world of work from the moment they start school. Once they find their passion, educators and business people collectively help them create a plan for achieving their career goals.

The process literally begins in preschool, according to Meredith Rozanski, chief operating officer for the Bowling Green Area Chamber. Kindergarten students participate in The Leader in Me program, which embeds leadership development into the curriculum, activities and culture of each school.

“By teaching students leadership skills – the same skills that employers seek in top talent – they create a human capital advantage for our community in the long run,” Rozanski said.

Kindergarten students learn the Franklin Covey organization’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” At this level, 5-year-olds apply for leadership positions such as leading the class down the hall or handing out papers. Although spelling and grammar are rarely perfect, their written application process teaches youngsters to create goals and do what it takes to achieve those goals.

Franklin Covey Co. formed in 1997 when time management and planning firm Franklin Quest, which employed the writings of Benjamin Franklin, acquired Covey Leadership Center, which used the principles of Stephen Covey’s 1989 bestselling book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Incorporating the philosophies in Covey’s business bestseller to education curricula wasn’t a random act. It was based on south-central Kentucky employer feedback regarding soft skills.

Engagement is key

“We raised $1.4 million from the private sector to be the first community to implement Franklin Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ across two school districts K-12,” Rozanski said.

Other groups have contributed as well. For example, the Leadership Bowling Green Class of 2018 raised $13,900 ($6,700 in cash and $7,200 in kind) to support a Leader in Me School at Warren Elementary.

Then the hard work began, Rozanski said.

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“Based on employer feedback and our reality of 6,000 open positions, we identified our top sectors; the top 10 in-demand positions within each sector; the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be successful; and the average salary here in south-central Kentucky. We did an ‘all call’ (event) at Western Kentucky University for all the businesses in those sectors to come in and review the data (Is it really what they need? What do they pay?) and then created posters with the career ladders for the schools, adult education centers and workforce board. This information is true regardless of age.”

The chamber then brought the private sector and educators (in equal numbers) to the same table to develop the profile of an ideal graduate and then worked with Ford Next Generation Learning, Franklin Covey and Alignment Nashville to develop the community’s specific plan.

Meaningful work experiences

“We kept in mind Gallup’s research that shows a student who has a meaningful work-related experience in high school is more likely to persist in the world of work,” Rozanski said. “Our goal is that every student graduates with a career-related opportunity.”

The Bowling Green Independent School District even chose to employ a college and career readiness coach and the Warren County School District followed a few years later.

“I help students figure out what they want to do when they graduate from high school,” said Destiny O’Rourke, the first college and career readiness coach.

O’Rourke focuses on student transition services – helping students get jobs and scholarships, write resumes, learn interview skills and meet college recruiters and area employers.

“If a group of students is interested in a particular college in Kentucky, we’ll load up a bus and go for a visit,” O’Rourke said. “We do lots of fieldtrips to health care facilities, industries and other businesses with opportunities.

“A lot of students don’t really understand what waits for them when they leave high school. They just have an abstract idea. We help them identify their own strengths and interests and help them see their education through the lens of their interests and what kind of jobs are available,” she said. “That way, when they are sitting in a class, it means more than just the academics they are learning. Every student needs math – it is a core subject – but what does that mean for their career? It’s the same with any subject. Students begin to understand they are really building their future in high school.”

Step into the cash machine

Brad Howard, president of Independence Bank in Bowling Green, is an employer who will hire some of those students. He has been involved from the beginning of SCK LAUNCH. In fact, he has been involved with the Bowling Green Area Chamber for 25 years, including a stint as chamber chairman, the top volunteer position.

He is especially pleased with the opportunities eighth-graders receive.

“Before we implemented SCK LAUNCH, we went to Florida and Alabama,” Howard said. “We saw what they did with kids in the eighth grade to expose them to opportunities in their own markets. It would work (here), we agreed. We took that idea and combined it with some other efforts.”

The result is SCK LAUNCH Experience, an interactive career expo where eighth-graders can explore the area’s high-demand sectors: construction; health care; hospitality; manufacturing; professional services; transportation, distribution and logistics; and public services.

Howard is at the Expo frequently. His goal is to help students understand what bankers, accountants and insurance representatives do and why they are needed. And he uses a can’t-miss strategy to attract their attention.

“We have an inflatable booth,” Howard said. “We put 30 to 35 dollar bills in an inflatable money machine (that swirls the cash in the air). The kids step into the booth and try to grab as much money as they can; that becomes their annual salary. We then walk down the line of kids and create real-life scenarios.

“Did you just slip and fall?” the banker questions one student. “If so, you are going to need an attorney. Do you know what an attorney will do for you? What kind of attorney do you need?”

The student eyes her dollars and thinks.

“Congratulations, you just bought a new car,” he tells another. “Did you buy insurance? You have to have insurance to legally drive that car. Do you know why else you need insurance?

“We have representatives from actual companies talk to the kids. If they have any interest, the representatives give them advice about how to get into the field.”

The beauty of the approach now, Howard said, is that the school systems are starting to teach toward curriculum in specific sectors. Bowling Green High School offers classes in math and English geared toward what health care professionals need. Warren East High, located near the industrial park, has classes in robotics and welding. Students can earn industry certifications while they are high school juniors and seniors.

“They can step out of high school with the credentials they need to earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year with no school debt,” Howard said. “We are not downplaying four-year degrees. We now have a med school here (University of Kentucky College of Medicine Bowling Green). We just want kids to understand the skill sets they are going to need for whatever career they choose. We have learned that at the middle-school age, if we can get their attention for just a little bit we can help them develop an interest and a path. Most have no idea what job opportunities we have here.”

But that is changing, said Rob Clayton, superintendent of the Warren County Public Schools.

“We are seeing more students with high-quality job offers,” Clayton said. “We have dialogue now with industry partners that have led to amazing opportunities for our students, whether from they are from area technology centers or one of our high schools.”

However, Clayton warns that today’s manufacturing jobs and those in many other categories are not similar to what they were decades ago.

The chamber compiles a workforce needs list monthly and shares it with local school systems.

“From our standpoint, it is still like putting a puzzle together,” Clayton said. “We have to find a proper balance, find opportunities outside the school setting and provide assessments in all our schools.

One positive impact is that school people are engaged with business and industry.

“Because of the partnership, business people are having conversations with kids,” Clayton said. “The kids are becoming more aware of what is out there. These conversations look different now.”

Speaking the ‘real world’ language

Gary Fields, superintendent of the Bowling Green Independent School District, agreed.

“We assume kids know about job and career opportunities,” he said, “but they didn’t know much beyond their own parents, family and friends. This has been a real key and has a tremendous impact on us locally.”

Fields credits the BG Chamber with bridging a long-standing gap between education and real jobs.

“They have ‘translated language’ between the entities,” Fields said. “The chamber is helping us understand the business community’s needs and desires. They are helping the business community understand our needs and desires. They have filled a big void that exists most everywhere.”

Students are the ultimate winners, according to the superintendent.

“We have students who earn their OSHA 10 (safety) certification while still in high school,” he said. “Employers such as M&L Electric want to interview those kids on the spot. The students have a base of knowledge to begin to work in their field and be long-term employees.”

Accordingly, Fields said there has been a shift in enrollment patterns.

“Parents look at what their kid is interested in doing now and don’t just automatically enroll them in college when the kid doesn’t know what he wants to do,” Smith said. “Kids can get some education and follow a pathway that might start with being a pharmacy tech and then lead to becoming a pharmacist; they go to college because they know what they want to be and need that education.”

Teachers as well as students are involved.

“Nov. 22 will be our fourth Experience Event, and this school year will be our third year of ramping up career shadowing and educator externships (time spent at workplaces),” Rozanski said. “We continue to add more opportunities each year and could not do any of it without superior leadership at both the school districts and in the private sector. We are truly blessed with the best group of passionate people to pull this community lift off.”

In high school, the experiences expand: High school leadership teams and career shadowing for students, and externships for teachers.

During career shadowing, for example, small groups of students observe professionals on the job and experience “a day in the life” of a professional.

Through externships, educators experience first-hand what careers might look like for their students and gain a deeper understanding of the technical and employability skills their students need for the workplace, according to the SCK website. They earn the skills needed for their students to be successful in the world of work and how their work in the classroom connects to the private sector.

O’Rourke, the Bowling Green High School-based college and career readiness coach, has completed two externships, one of them 35 miles away in Russellville at Logan Aluminum, where her expectations about what working at a factory were forever changed.

“My externship at Logan Aluminum was in advanced manufacturing,” she said. “Advanced manufacturing is a great pathway. It requires highly skilled work. Now I can help my students understand how their studies prepare them for a job like this.

“This understanding has always been such a huge component of education. Students have to decide about the quality of life they want, what is most important to live the quality of life they want, and what kind of job will help them reach that quality.”

Collectively, all the efforts will create a better match between the skills graduates possess and the skills employers need, which is what motivates SCK LAUNCH.

“We have a global talent shortage,” BG Chamber President Bunch said. “The community that figures out how to fix it first wins. This agenda promises to create lifelong learning after graduation, and a talent pipeline to grow our economy.”


Numbers based on 1,143 Bowling Green area seniors in the Spring 2017 graduating class.

23% Graduated with an industry credential

28% Graduated with six or more
post-secondary credits.

53% Graduated with a career preparatory program

98% Graduation Rate (92.1 to 98.4%)

95% Attendance Rate (92.7 to 95.3%)

What about Your Community?

Interest in Bowling Green’s approach to matching local job needs with career training prompted the BG Area Chamber to create and offer a kit other communities can use. It lays out what is needed to create the Eighth-Grade Experience for themselves and how to prepare the curriculum for students prior to the event.

It explains how to identify local economic sectors, the entrepreneurial mindset and research job positions available in the community. The Seventh-Grade Experience – focused more on personality profiles and career interests – will be available soon.

Recently, both Paducah and Frankfort used the approach Bowling Green developed in their communities.

“In November 2018, we implemented an eighth-grade career launch,” said Sandra Wilson, president of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce. “The Bowling Green Chamber folks received a state grant to assist us in implementing the career launch. They spent most of the day with us and provided us with lots of materials to prepare for it.”

Eighth-graders from Paducah’s four public schools participated and found employers from 40 local businesses eager to talk with them about possible careers. Employers represented the main economic sectors in Paducah, including health care, river industries, manufacturing, and the trades.

“We feel like this is a great opportunity to begin another form of workforce development,” Wilson said. “We identified our most pressing openings through websites they had access to that we didn’t at the time and built the event from there. It turned out to be very successful, and we appreciated their help.”

Paducah set its second Career Launch event for Oct. 2.

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