By Susan Gosselin
Kentucky is known for products like bourbon, horses and great food. But with one of the nation’s highest levels of high school graduation attainment and laser focus on workforce development initiatives, perhaps it should be known for the quality students it produces, too.
According to the 2017 report from the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and Civic Enterprises, Kentucky’s 87.5 percent high school graduation rate in 2015 puts it in the nation’s top 10. Of those students, 93.2 percent attend college, vocational/technical school, enter the military or start their working careers.
Kentucky lawmakers, educators and business leaders are keen to make sure those stats keep climbing and students have job-ready skills, since Northern Kentucky’s jobs base is expected to grow overall 12.8 percent by 2024. The commonwealth’s workforce occupational outlook shows several careers outstripping the overall growth markets – healthcare practitioners, healthcare support, foodservice, team assemblers and construction all expect job growth rates between 20 and 40 percent.
Janet Harrah, senior director for the Center of Economic Analysis and Development at Northern Kentucky University, said the key to employment will be making sure students stay ahead of the training and education they need to get these jobs.
“When you talk about a skills gap, it’s a very broad discussion. But really, the needs vary by industry,” Harrah said. “For instance, in certain higher-wage jobs, like in healthcare, IT and data analytics, there is a national competition for talent that will only be won by graduating more students through four-year programs in these areas. But for other jobs, like modern factory work, or working in logistical centers, we need to have more apprenticeships, more short vo-tech programs, more online and flexible classes to help students take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.”
The region’s manufacturers and other employers are helping lead the way in special job skills education. A recent example is automotive manufacturing giant Mubea North America, which just graduated its third apprenticeship class – 10 students – in December 2017 in Covington. With the state’s nearly $9 billion in 2017 economic development deals, including many in Northern Kentucky, it’s programs like this that will help ensure those dollars invested are met with ready employees.
And being a logistics and manufacturing heavy region, programs like NKU’s Global Supply Chain Management degree are key to the area’s prolonged success.
The school announced it will begin a new online accelerated degree program in 2018 offering students the ability to earn a bachelor’s in nursing, or master’s of business administration on a shortened timeframe, with 13 additional programs set to come online in March. NKU also announced a new offering of micro-credential programs, which are two- to four-course mini-certificates in specific topic areas. Designed for working professionals, they can be earned as a single certificate, or stacked with others toward a graduate certificate or master’s degree.
At Sullivan University’s Center For Learning – Northern Kentucky, career-focused degrees, flexible schedules and financial planning put more education within reach for more students. And at all of its campuses, the school’s professional development center is emphasizing soft skills like However, without soft skills – public speaking, self-confidence, assertiveness, et al – all of the hard skills in the world won’t lead to the professional success you seek.
David Armstrong, J.D., president of Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky., said more than ever, colleges have to get creative to meet the needs of students and employers. He said payscale.com just named Thomas More the No. 1 school in Kentucky for the best return on investment.
“We do that by helping students get the soft skills employers need – a strong, values-based education with a focus on ethics, while building bridges with employers to provide the technical and practical experience to have a job by graduation,” Armstrong said. “We’re serious about making experiential learning a requirement.”
Thomas More has been making good on that promise by creating workforce-ready skills incubators with local companies. It created a program for genetic testing company Gravity Diagnostics in Covington, installing a Thomas More student from the school’s Human Resources program to work at the company’s offices. The college also runs a STEM outreach center with a biology field station on the Ohio River.
Gateway Community & Technical College in Florence, Ky., is reaching out to employers with its Workforce Solutions program, which partners directly with companies to create customized training programs for students in subjects ranging from soft skills like leadership to more technical programs geared around a company’s specific needs. Many students who begin with a credentialing program go on to finish a more traditional associate’s style degree.
Kentucky FAME (Federation of Advanced Manufacturers), has an even more comprehensive approach. Students can come straight out of high school (or return to school) and into the KY FAME program to learn advanced manufacturing tech skills, robotics and more. They go to school two days a week, and work three as paid apprentices for the participating companies that partner with FAME. Upon graduating debt free, good paying, high-demand jobs await them.
The commitment to 21st century learning doesn’t start in college. In Erlanger, Ky., Toyota Manufacturing donated its former engineering headquarters building to the Boone County School system. With the help of $6.8 million in a Work Ready Skills Initiative Grant from the commonwealth, the district is turning the facility into a school, the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center. Slated to open to 1,000 magnet school students in 2019, Ignite will be focused on a STEAM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) with a strong emphasis on real world, experiential based learning.
Similarly, Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology is a high school that allows 800 students yearly to get an early start on informatics, media arts, robotics engineering, biomedical sciences and more.
And it’s not only formal education institutions that are moving the needle on workforce education for the state. Janice Urbanik, executive director of Partners for a Competitive Workforce, said her organization is a prime example of how a non-profit like United Way of Greater Cincinnati can pair up with employers and colleges to create workforce education opportunities. Urbanik said since 2008 it has helped more than 11,000 people get the job preparation, training and placement they need to either get started, or move up in their careers.
SULLIVAN UNIVERSITY CENTER FOR LEARNING – NORTHERN KENTUCKY
207 Grandview Dr., Ste 300
Fort Mitchell, KY 41017
Dr. Vicki Berling is the director of the Sullivan University Center for Learning – Northern Kentucky. A veteran of nearly 20 years of adult and nontraditional education, Dr. Berling has held administrative and managerial positions at Thomas More College and Northern Kentucky University and has worked as well in healthcare management. “I believe passionately that the career-based educational opportunities offered at Sullivan University changes people and opens doors that may have been shut.”
UNIVERSITY OF THE CUMBERLANDS
6178 College Station Drive
Williamsburg, KY 40769
Located in the heart of Appalachia, University of the Cumberlands (UC) is an institution of regional distinction that offers undergraduate degrees in more than 40 major fields of study, along with several pre-professional, graduate, and doctoral programs. With a total enrollment of more than 10,000 students, UC is the largest private university in Kentucky and is devoted to preparing students for the future through hands-on, experiential learning and research.