Home » Opinion – Kent Oyler: 55K a priority for economic development

Opinion – Kent Oyler: 55K a priority for economic development

By Kent Oyler, Greater Louisville, Inc. President and CEO

I spent yesterday cloistered at the Frazier with an impressive group of 50 education, business and government leaders including Mayor Fischer, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, IUS Chancellor Ray Wallace and Hilliard Lyons CEO Jim Allen, amongst many others. The topic was 55,000 degrees and how our region advances post-secondary degree attainment. I know, sounds like a ball. But you know what? It was great. Yet so much remains to be done.

Let’s start with the fact that we’ve fallen into the “Southern Trap” where our historical high-wage manufacturing jobs have declined due to automation and we are lagging in replacing them with high-wage knowledge jobs. That gap has led to a 30 year decline in the MSA’s median wage vs. the national average. Ouch! And the only way out is to increase post-secondary (after high school) attainment rates for degrees and credentials. While we value all jobs, it is the education-intensive ones that pay enough wages to raise the tide and float us out of the trap. One factoid from today that stuck with me was that of the 2.9 million jobs created since the great recession that pay over $50,000/yr., a full 2.8 million of them required a college degree. Yeah, 96 percent of the best jobs require college degrees. And to the degree that the number of our local sheepskin holders is low, so is our ability to participate in the high end of the national economic recovery. Put differently, without more college degree holders our region continues that 30-year decline, and no one today thought that to be a good idea

The public-private partnership 55,000 Degrees, or 55K for short was created 5 years ago and has the BIG GOAL of moving the metro into the top half of our peer cities for number of associate and bachelor’s degrees. At the time, the goal was set in 2009 that required 55,000 new degrees – though because of progress in all cities the number has swollen to over 62,000 today. The Frazier retreat yesterday was a chance to revisit the original goals and reset the strategy as needed. And ideas were plenty.

The group looked at workforce-education alignment, credentials, adult learners, college readiness and educational equity. We mused about millennial priorities, blurring the lines between high school and college, early childhood education, graduated tuition rates, and pretty much every other related topic.

And the conclusion was that enhanced degree attainment must become a community priority; a priority for economic development and workforce, a priority for extracting people from poverty, and a priority for cultural vitality. Aw, just a high priority in general. And businesses and GLI have a huge role to play.

In the end degrees are part of the business community’s critical need for a bigger and better educated workforce. I am struck by the comment of one very high growth (public) company CEO I met with: “our growth is only limited by human capital”, and in his case that meant folks in Greater Louisville with college degrees. And oh yeah, his company just announced hundreds of new local positions. Let’s hope we can fill them, as well as the thousands of others open right here at home.

The recession is over and unemployment has dwindled south of 4.5 percent in Greater Louisville. But it still remains high in some pockets and underemployment is a problem. The solution, as we learned at the meeting today, is education. Be part of the solution; check out 55k at www.55000degrees.org/