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Work Ready Communities are, indeed, work ready

Emphasis falls squarely on creating highly skilled workforce

By Terri Darr McLean
Blue Grass Area Development District

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 22, 2014) — It wasn’t too long ago that business and industry looking to set up shop were concerned more with the “bricks and mortar” attri­butes of a community  – primarily the roads needed to move materials in and ship products out.

But now, in a more globally competitive economy, that focus has shifted almost solely to the human side of things. No. 1 on the list of attributes companies look for? A highly skilled workforce.

Woodford County Work Ready Certification Award
Woodford County Work Ready Certification Award

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“No more is it can I get my products to markets, it’s will I have access to the people to make my products,” said Owen McNeill, head of business services for the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board. “We’ve found that nothing beats a well-educated, malleable workforce within a community.”

McNeill and his colleagues at Bluegrass WIB – which works with the 17 Central Kentucky counties that make up the Bluegrass Area Development District – have spent the past five years helping communities adapt to this sea change through the Kentucky Work Ready Communities program.

Developed with input from business and industry, economic development programs, education systems and other community stakeholders, the Work Ready Communities program not only helps communities develop that highly skilled workforce but helps them attract the employers to put people to work. In addition, communities with a WRC designation are better able to help existing companies grow and add new jobs – all of which helps strengthen local economies.

“No other single program promotes an area to employers like the Work Ready Communities program,” McNeill said.

In essence, the WRC program is a certification program. Communities must apply to be certified a Work Ready Community and have three years to meet the minimum criteria. Certification only lasts two years, then a community must reapply.

“We have very strict standards a community must meet,” McNeill said. “We did not want to make it another rubber stamp thing – we wanted to make it meaningful.”

Once a community is certified, it provides a measure of a community’s workforce quality, he added.

“This plan was developed as a way for communities, from an economic development standpoint, to say, ‘Hey, employers, we have an adequate and well-trained workforce to fill your needs,” he added.

So far, three counties in the Bluegrass Area Development District – Madison, Boyle and Woodford – and a total of six across the state have been certified as Work Ready Communities. Several others are in varying stages of being certified.

“At first, they thought these standards were so strict that they might only get one or two counties in an area to apply, so they have kind of stair-stepped it now. You can be a Work Ready Community, you can be a Work Ready Community in progress,” McNeill said.

A community must meet criteria in six areas of concentration: high school graduation rates, community commitment, educational attainment, soft skills measurement, Internet availability and National Career Readiness certification.

The high school graduation rate must be at 82.32 percent, for example, and high-speed Internet must be available to 90 percent of households. The percentage of working-age adults with a two-year degree must be at 25 percent, with a plan to increase that number to 32 percent within three years and 39 percent within five years, the latter of which is the national average. And there must be a plan in place to reach 9 percent of adults holding the National Career Readiness certification.

There is also a focus on development of so-called soft skills – communication , the ability to work as part of a team, leadership ability, critical thinking  and more – skills that are often difficult to measure but are at the forefront of what employers are looking for, McNeill said. Communities must have a sustainable program in place to address soft skills development at both the secondary and postsecondary levels as part of the WRC certification process.

In Madison County, which received WRC certification this past November, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mendi Goble said the soft skills focus has become one of her passions. “That’s the thing we hear the most about,” she said.

As a result of the certification effort, Madison County set up a program to offer soft skills training to every freshman in the Madison County school district. They also offer the Franklin Covey “Leader In Me” program for schoolchildren of all ages, a “phenomenal” program that helps instill leadership and other important skills early on.

Another key to the WRC process is involvement from all corners of the community, McNeill said. This includes stakeholders in economic development, workforce development, and business and industry, as well as elected officials. “It’s one of the slight few initiatives where everyone has to get on board. It really opens up those lines of communication and informs everybody at the table the importance of others’ programs.”

Helping the community along in this effort is one of the prime responsibilities of the Work Ready Communities’ staff.

“Those counties that take the ball and run with it, we’ll help every step of the way,” McNeill said.

The Chamber of Commerce led Madison County’s effort to be certified a Work Ready Community and was made possible by a broad community commitment, Goble said.

“Probably the collaboration has been the most important thing to come out of this,” she added. “Not only the collaboration that happens at the beginning but the ongoing collaboration. We’re now a force to be reckoned with.”

As far as the 17-county Bluegrass area goes, Franklin County has been deemed a WRC in progress and Clark has submitted a letter of intent. Scott, Harrison, Bourbon, Fayette, Powell and Jessamine counties are in the formative stages of the process.

For more information on the Work Ready Communities program, visit workready.ky.gov.