By Lorie Hailey
Many large employers in the region say one of their biggest challenges is keeping up with workforce needs – from entry-level to management positions in manufacturing and logistics across a range of industries.
“We have become the mega logistics/ fulfillment and supply chain epicenter,” said Paul Verst, chairman and CEO of Verst Logistics in Walton, Ky. “With companies flocking to invest in our community, and with the impact of COVID-19 on our workforce, it is becoming increasingly challenging for companies to attract and retain quality talent. We have substantially increased our wage rates and still find it challenging to find people who want to work.”
To help solve this challenge, local leaders are working alongside companies to help grow and strengthen Northern Kentucky’s talent pipeline to meet current and future workforce needs.
In true NKY fashion, this is a collaborative effort.
One of the biggest collaborations is Growing Regional Outcomes through Workforce for Northern Kentucky (GROW NKY), a strategic collective of more than 70 leaders across key industries, educational institutions and community organizations working to leverage the region’s assets to grow, attract and retain a globally competitive workforce.
The initiative, launched in August 2018, is led by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce with key workforce partners.
“The purpose of GROW NKY is to increase the pipeline of available workers and to offer a broad spectrum of opportunities in Northern Kentucky by working together and unifying workforce development efforts,” said Leisa Mulcahy, vice president of workforce for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. She leads the GROW NKY initiative.
Grow NKY focuses on five key areas of workforce development, which it calls “pillars of work” – improved kindergarten readiness; college and career readiness; adult career readiness and lifelong learning; talent retention and attraction; and employer policies and practices. Work in each pillar is geared toward high-demand sectors in NKY: advanced manufacturing, information technology (IT), advanced logistics, health sciences, financial services and construction.
The initiative has set short-term and long-term objectives in each area of focus with a mission to drive population-level outcomes in each area, Mulcahy said. More than 70 organizations are involved as partners. Increasing work-based learning connections was identified as a top priority by GROW NKY partners and OneNKY Alliance, said Amanda Johannemann, NKY Chamber’s director of talent strategies. That goal led to the development of MyCareerE3, a work-based online learning platform to connect students to opportunities in high-demand sectors. MyCareerE3 also serves as a central database for businesses, Northern Kentucky school districts and collaborative partners to capture and report activity across the region, she said.
Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services is working with GROW NKY to build business and education partnerships that support internships, externships, co-ops, apprenticeships and career-based learning opportunities. Another outcome of GROW NKY has been the creation of the Strategic Workforce Action Team (SWAT), Mulcahy said.
“Northern Kentucky is rich with resources to help employers tackle people challenges. With such an expansive network of resources available, navigating the landscape of workforce development can be difficult and overwhelming for employers,” she said.
GROW NKY partners have worked to align resources across the workforce ecosystem to create a more effective and efficient way for employers to access and utilize the resources they need. By scheduling a “SWAT meeting,” employers can meet with representatives from more than a dozen partner organizations to share their current situation and future challenges with the group, which then aligns resources to best serve the company’s workforce needs.
As of December 2020, 19 SWAT meetings had been conducted. When surveyed, the companies involved rated the meetings as helpful and said they were likely to utilize the resources provided, Mulcahy said.
Educators focusing on region’s needs
Several top-notch universities and colleges are located in the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati region, including Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More University, Gateway Community and Technical College, University of Cincinnati and Xavier University. Many of these schools partner with the community in various ways to help retain and attract businesses.
Northern Kentucky University has continued its legacy of building partnerships and enhancing the learning experience for students, said Cheryl Besl, director of marketing at Northern Kentucky Tri-County Economic Development (Tri-ED). These partnerships benefit the private sector while providing work experience for students, she said.
Under the leadership of President Ashish Vaidya, NKU has sought ways to prepare its students for productive careers in Northern Kentucky, Besl said. One example is the university’s Success by Design (SbD) program, a three-year strategic framework that advances student success in alignment with regional needs. Among other initiatives, NKU is making sure its curriculum and degree pathways are aligned with national best practices and regional workforce needs. The university is also focusing on creating a culture that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation.
A couple of examples: NKU’s work with Rockwell Automation and CBT Co. led the university to build a lab that teaches hands-on automation and robotics support through a mechatronics degree program, Besl said. In partnership with the Tri-State Logistics Council, the university also launched a supply chain and logistics hub to address workforce needs in the region. It links supply chain management students with internships, job opportunities and professional connections.
In September, NKU and the City of Covington unveiled the Collaborative for Economic Engagement, a one-stop innovation hub for businesses and entrepreneurs to accelerate economic growth in the area. It is located in Covington’s Innovation Alley space at 112 West Pike St.
The Collaborative for Economic Engagement leverages regional agencies and programs as well as NKU’s expertise in data analytics, health, logistics and entrepreneurial innovation to provide the tools that entrepreneurs need to thrive. Given the financial impacts of the pandemic, the Collaborative for Economic Engagement will play an essential role in helping the local economy move from recovery into growth, NKU said.
“NKU is an economic driver and plays a critical role with innovation, the workforce and growth strategies,” said Karen Finan, president and CEO of OneNKY Alliance.
NKU and Gateway Community and Technical College have a partnership that provides transfer assistance to Gateway students working toward the completion of an associate degree with future plans to transfer to NKU.
Gateway’s primary goals are to enhance education and training access, create engaging and relevant curriculum, and remove barriers to higher education, said Gateway President Fernando Figueroa.
The college offers innovative programs with community partners such as LIFT the Tri-State, a free, 10-week job-training program in logistics, inventory management, facilities management, and transportation that allows participants to obtain certificates in seven different fields; and the Enhanced Operator Program, a collaboration with the Life Learning Center and local manufacturers to create a competency-based, industry-aligned curriculum that meets the needs of employers and their workforce, Figueroa said.
Gateway also offers classes, programs and certificates in fields where jobs are readily available, such as jobs requiring commercial drivers’ licenses or in the areas of computerized manufacturing and machining, HVAC and utility linework.
Northern Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (NKY FAME) also is helping to create a pipeline of highly skilled workers. NKY FAME is a partnership with Gateway whose purpose is to implement career pathway, apprenticeship-style educational programs that work to close the skills gap.
Students in Gateway’s two-year advanced manufacturing technician program (AMT) get the benefit of cutting-edge curriculum and paid working experience while learning highly sought-after business principles and best practices of world-class manufacturers. They attend class two days a week and work at a sponsoring manufacturer three days per week.