A More Efficient Workforce Pipeline

Programs are being implemented across Kentucky to more effectively tie education to business and industry needs

By Debra Gibson Isaacs

The Tech X program at Owensboro Community and Technical College gives students hands-on training in arc welding and cutting, shown here, and other skilled crafts.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series looking at initiatives in Kentucky to make real-world skills a bigger part of the education curriculum. Click here for Part 1.

Kentucky needs an education/career freeway with numerous on- and off-ramps.

That’s the perspective of Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS). He sees this need daily as he oversees myriad programs leading to every competency from the basics (reading, writing, math) all the way to critical thinking, leadership, advanced manufacturing skills and advanced medical technologies.

On ramps, the courses and requirements surrounding them, get a lot of attention. However, the other end – merging from the classroom into the career lane – needs more focus, Box said.

“It’s important that we also talk about exit ramps,” he said, “especially about how much time it takes to exit that freeway with a certificate or a degree that will provide a living wage and allow people to stack credentials until they have reached where they want to go.”

Meeting the need for both hasn’t been easy for educators.

“Since the recession ended in 2012 there has been this huge shift to get more individuals employed quicker,” Box said, “but that has put a strain on education systems across the country. Companies can’t afford to wait two or four years for educated workers anymore. That model doesn’t work now.”

It’s the modern-day education/employment dilemma: the need for higher skills and the need for them NOW.

The good news in Kentucky is that educational institutions across the state are building those multiple ramps, finding innovative ways to shave the amount of time needed to acquire skills, and even finding ways to do both simultaneously.

Earning GED and certificates simultaneously

Each on-ramp has to be different, Box said, depending whom it is to serve and what they need to meet their immediate goals.

At level one are adults with exceedingly few job opportunities because they lack a high school diploma or equivalency.

“In Kentucky we have a population of adults left behind,” Box said. “They are either underemployed or do not have a high school equivalency. We created the GED Plus Program based on a program in Washington state. GED Plus allows individuals without a GED to co-enroll in Kentucky Skills U, where in one semester they simultaneously earn their GED and a first-level certificate in one of five high-wage/high-demand economic sectors.

This is an important on-ramp, Box said, because there are 350,000 people in Kentucky without a GED or high school equivalency.

“We have had tremendous success with this,” he said. “Those without a high school diploma have often experienced failure with traditional education. If you talk to them about spending years in school, it is not going to happen.”


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Veterans have their own ramps as well. One is a collaboration between KCTCS, the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs (KCMA). Called Veterans Accelerated Learning for Licensed Occupations (VALLO), this program provides occupational certifications for veterans and transitioning military personnel. Transitioning military personnel and vets with aviation or power plant mechanics experience are eligible to become certified with the Federal Aviation Administration in Kentucky.

It is a way for Kentucky – the second-largest U.S. exporter of aviation and aerospace products – to help reduce critical labor shortages in this field, which is one of the Department of Labor’s primary focus areas. Aerospace exports have increased 183% in the past five years, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

Academies redefine high school

Kentucky’s schools are looking at education differently as well, incorporating far more career-oriented activities and training than in the past. The career focus is also coming earlier, sometimes as early as kindergarten.

Two of the state’s largest school systems, Fayette County Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools, have developed what they call academies to help students find their passion and the best path to transforming that passion into a satisfying career. Students begin in an academy in the ninth grade.

“We worked with the Greater Lexington Area Chamber of Commerce to identify the leading industries and job needs in our area,” said James McMillin, chief of high schools in Fayette County. “This is how we selected the focus of our academies. Each academy has its own team of teachers and counselors who focus on that field.”

The curriculum is similarly job focused.

“Externships, internships and academic content have a career focus integrated into them,” McMillin said. “Whether students want to go to a job directly from high school or to a technical school or college, we are helping them find the area of work they are most interested in and begin to explore experiences in that field. They are then better prepared for the next step, whether it is college, medical school or the firefighter academy.

Fayette County spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall has seen firsthand the impact the program is having on students. She has watched her daughter, now at Bryan Station High School, thrive in the Spanish immersion academy she attends.

“She is not sure whether she wants to be a pediatric surgeon or an emergency room doctor,” Deffendall said. “At first she was interested in pediatric oncology until she saw the day-to-day realities of that field. She has been able to meet with surgeons and listened to many doctors who were guest speakers.

Last year, Deffendall said, 1,300 freshmen in three academy schools attended career exploration events, and 4,612 earned industry certifications, a 125% increase from the previous year.

Jefferson County Public Schools began its version in 2017 and it is now well established. JCPS Academies is based on the framework of Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL), which brings together educators, employers and community leaders to help students graduate from high school both college- and career-ready.

A head start on real life

Again, the focus is on effectively mixing traditional education and learning experiences that relate directly to the world of work, just as an artist would blend colors to create a desired effect. And as with any creation, balance is key. The goal is for JCPS Academy students to graduate with college credit, industry certifications, real work experiences, and solid “soft” skills – a head start on life in the real world.

“Academies of Louisville is about engaging students in their learning through career-connected opportunities,” said Christy Rogers, assistant superintendent of high schools for JCPCS. “The academy model builds both essential skills such as collaboration, innovation and public speaking, along with technical education skills. The academy model ensures the skill sets we are building in students align with the needs of our businesses and community partners. The academy model is the answer to the need for vocational education and college readiness or lifelong learning.” 

 The process begins in elementary school and intensifies in middle schools.

 “Starting in elementary school, career awareness is built through interest assessments and basic career exploration,” Rogers said. “Middle-school students build an individual learning plan, which focuses on identifying their skills and interests and potential careers for them. In eighth grade, all students have the opportunity to attend the Junior Achievement Inspire event, featuring over 100 employers in a variety of industries with hands-on career exploration activities. 

“In ninth grade, as part of the freshman academy, all students participate in an exploration process, deepening their understanding of their own interests and abilities as well as the opportunity to ‘test drive’ career pathways offered at their school,” she said. 

Learn locally with dual credit

All high school students can get a head start on a career using a dual-credit program, in which students taking qualified classes can earn high school and college credit simultaneously.

“This year we have 186 students enrolled in a dual-credit course,” said Stacy Edds-Ellis, academic dean at Owensboro Community and Technical College. Edds-Ellis is also an ambassador for the national College in High School Alliance.

In 2016, Owensboro was announced as one of the participating institutions in the Department of Education’s experimental site for dual enrollment.

All of Kentucky’s public universities and KCTCS have made deals with nearby high schools to participate in dual-credit class agreements.

“One of the things that makes our program unique is that we are a national experimental site for students who qualify for PELL grants (a subsidy the federal government provides for students at lower income levels.) By participating in dual credit, they can access those PELL funds early. This makes accessibility to higher education even more accessible and equitable and levels the playing field.”

One industrious student even earned an associate degree from KCTCS a week before she received her high school diploma, Edds-Ellis said. The timing was a fluke due to school schedules, but the idea of earning a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time is not. It is one of the overarching goals of the dual-credit program.

“Some kids know early on what career they want and sometimes that it will mean being in college a long time,” Edds-Ellis said. “They are academically ready for college, and getting started two years early is attractive to them. They can still be active in high school and those extracurricular activities and get ahead academically.”

Edds-Ellis said there are now more than 20 bus routes in OCTC’s area taking kids back and forth from high schools to community and technical schools.

Grow NKY: Project-based learning

In Northern Kentucky, some 60 partners have joined forces with the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on a workforce/education-oriented effort they call Grow NKY.

Grow NKY is built on four pillars: kindergarten readiness; college and career readiness; adult career readiness and lifelong learning; and talent retention and attraction. Building a library of employer policies and practices is also a focus.

“The first three deal with the talent supply,” said Leisa Mulcahy, managing director/vice president of Workforce for the Northern Kentucky (NKY) Chamber of Commerce, “and the fourth deals with talent and attracting people to the region. The final is a variety of resources for area employers.”

Grow NKY has also identified six primary industries it hopes to grow and attract: information technology, financial services, construction, advanced manufacturing, health sciences, and advanced logistics (supply chain).

Connecting education and business is how it plans to improve the numbers.

“Grow NKY is connecting business with students,” Mulcahy said. “It starts in kindergarten with some interesting projects and continues through middle school job awareness and high school shadowing into creating apprenticeships. We are working toward the right things with the right people at the table. Industry informs every ounce of what we do, and it is really comprehensive.”

The latest industry/education alliance in Northern Kentucky is the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center. Industry leaders in the area helped develop a cross-disciplinary curriculum for high school students to address specific gaps in the regional workforce and give students the chance to interact with local business leaders.

Located in Erlanger in a building Toyota donated, Ignite is an academy focused on project-based learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM). Admission is not based on grade point averages, but on a student’s desire to learn specific high-demand skills. This is the first semester for Ignite, which has 900 students, including some from Kenton County as part of a unique regional collaboration.

“Ignite is designed to give kids work-based learning experiences,” said Bill Hogan, director of innovation for Boone County Schools and director of strategic partnerships for Ignite. “Before they graduate from high school, they will have a pretty good idea of what the job entails and if that job is their passion.

“Maybe they find out a certain job is not their passion, that they don’t want to do this the rest of their life. That information is just as valuable. They don’t get trapped in a job they don’t like.”

Hogan said they do not have all the business networks up and running yet to connect students and businesses, but expect that these will be well established by the time today’s freshman are seniors.

Adults are not forgotten

A good example of an adult-focused program can be found in Owensboro. A program called Tech X offers hands-on training in a real-world, self-paced, industrial environment. Students can earn certificates as a gas welder, arc cutter, production line welder and a forklift operator.

“Tech X trades (instruction) seat time for skills mastery,” said Mike Rodgers, chief institutional officer for Owensboro Community and Technical College (OCTC). “Each module is progressive, and Tech X allows students to rapidly acquire competencies.

“I like the work-and-learn model because the average adult is not comfortable sitting in a lecture environment. Plus, they need skill sets rapidly. This allows us to meet them where they are and provides them immediate success and a quick entry into a family-sustainable job. High school students are not enrolled, which makes the adults more comfortable. And the program is fast paced.”

Two tracks provide flexibility. The daytime option allows students to attend classes eight hours per day, three days per week for a seven-month period. The evening option allows students to attend classes four hours per evening, four nights per week for a nine-month period

The program uses a success coach model, according to Rodgers.

“We work with master trainers to recruit and retain students. During any program, life happens. The coach works with the student to navigate attendance issues or child care or assist with any problem that comes up. We have even had some homeless students who need somewhere to stay or food. We have found much success with this model.

“This competency-based model allows us to build those skills. They find success in easier programs and move into more advanced curriculum. The students often say: ‘I did not know I could do that.’ ”

Not a degree but a career

Back at KCTCS, Box said that the language surrounding higher education is one of the biggest changes over the years.

“The reason I say that is because of the language that for many, many years was: ‘You have to go to college. You have to get a four-year degree.’ We put the cart before the horse in many cases. That rhetoric continued for years, but at some point, it began to change.

“The message should be: You have to get a good career. What does that career require educationally? All education leads to a good career and societal gain as well because a better-educated individual will continue to give back to the community.”

After four years in a Jefferson County Public Schools Academy, students graduate with:

• Direct career and industry exposure

• Industry and college field trips

• Job shadowing experience

• Junior- and senior-year internships through SummerWorks

• The ability to earn college credits and industry credentials

• The ability to earn work experience through co-ops or apprenticeships

• Networking opportunities with local industry professionals

• Success skills and a postsecondary transition plan

Kentuckians Involved at National Level of Workforce Development

Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) has been named to President Donald Trump’s American Workforce Policy Board. The board has 25 members – two-thirds are CEOs from the top 50 companies; three are from higher education, and the remainder from associations. “When Trump met with us, he had us go around and talk about why we were interested in the board,” Box said. “Tim Cook from Apple went first. He said when Apple started they hired primarily engineers, but that is not where their workforce is today. Now more than 50% of Apple employees have associate degrees. He said there are lots of great paying jobs in high tech and all manufacturing that require less than a bachelor’s degree. Look for a new marketing campaign about that very subject in early spring.”

Stacy Edds-Ellis, academic dean of Owensboro Community and Technical College, has been selected as an ambassador for the national College in High School Alliance (CHSA). Edds-Ellis has been at OCTC since 2002. She was director of OCTC’s first Title III Strengthening Institutions grant and an associate dean of academic affairs in 2010, spearheading the college’s regional accreditation efforts. In her role as dean, she continues to lead an array of programs. She was a KCTCS New Horizons Staff Award recipient and was recently awarded the University Faculty Excellence in Part-time Teaching Award from Western Kentucky University, where she has taught in the WKU Leadership program since 2014.

Retraining Minds Instead of Hands

Kathy Miller Perkins has worked with businesses across the world, helping them with an array of issues as CEO of Miller Consultants. She has written two books: “Retraining the American Workforce” and her latest, “Leadership and Purpose: How to Create a Sustainable Culture.”

In Miller’s view, two qualities are most important for people to learn, regardless of the job or economic sector: an agile mind and a global awareness.

“Things change so fast, employers need people who are agile with their thinking and are critical thinkers. They need to be able develop new skills along the way. This is not new but has become even more significant.

“People also need to be globally aware, even those in small business. My small company does more international work than work in the states now. A level of world sophistication has become necessary over the last decade.”


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

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