Leaders discuss workforce development
A group of local educational, industrial and government leaders is putting together an ambitious plan to increase awareness of local industry and improve educational programs needed to prepare future workers. Their first meeting was in the Woodford County Public Library Monday, Aug. 29. Attendees included Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott, city council member Ken Kerkhoff, Woodford Economic Development Authority (EDA) Chairman John Soper, several employees of local industry, Bluegrass Technical and Community College officials and Woodford Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins. Kerkhoff said with between 500 and 600 manufacturing and distribution jobs opening up in the next two years at companies like More Than A Bakery, American Howa and Lakeshore Learning, better outreach and education efforts are needed to fill as many jobs as possible with Woodford County residents. Kerkhoff and Soper said local leaders haven't promoted local industry as well as they have the horse business. "Why don't we have an industry tour? Put people on buses and take them through and see the various manufacturers in town - what kind of jobs are available, what kind of training is available ." Kerkhoff said. One of the attendees was Sam Polk, human resources director at the automotive glass manufacturer Nissan Sheet Glass (Pilkington), whose 300 employees make automotive glass for one of the top four such companies in the country. Polk said his take on the meeting is that local government officials and heads of manufacturing companies need to work more closely together to understand their respective needs. "The biggest thing that came out of the meeting for me is the start of a partnership, the start of tackling some of our issues surrounding training and development of our local workforce," Polk said. Asked what NSG can to do to increase awareness and educational opportunities for future workers, Polk said he believed it involved getting into local schools to tell students about the jobs they offer. The goal, Polk said, is "To keep those people in our community, working and living in our community, and not commuting to Lexington for work." Soper agreed, and said that the community college system needs to be part of the solution. "We (Bluegrass Community Technical College, in Lexington, and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which is headquartered in Versailles) could design programs to customize their high school experience, either at the latter end of it or the end of it ." Soper said. "We think there's a perception problem that parents, possibly, and the general populace, may not understand how good these jobs are." Soper said one industry representative at the meeting said "lots" of his workers make $60,000 annually - but only 15 to 20 percent of all of them live in Woodford County. At a recent economic development conference, Soper heard a startling statistic: That 49 percent of recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees not in science or engineering are working in food or retail establishments within a year of graduation. He said he hopes local efforts can use some of the $100 million Gov. Matt Bevin bonded for workforce development. Hawkins said he believes school visits from manufacturing representatives and teacher and student tours of local plants can begin this spring. "Just so they can get an idea of what goes on in a manufacturing plant today, because it's far different than it was 20, 25 years ago," Hawkins said. By next year, new or revised classes could be offered, pending approval of the school board. "We've got some things in place, but is that exactly what they need? Do we need to tweak some things, do we need to add some things? Is there a completely different course that might need to be added? I think those are all pieces that we want to try to find out to see how we're matching up now, and again, are there some things we might need to adjust or do a little differently?" Hawkins said. "It's exciting to me. Because I think this just has a wealth of potential. Now it's just trying to figure out what we can do next as a group working together." Kerkhoff said he hopes the partnerships begin to bear fruit as soon as possible. "The good news is, all of these current and new employers are in a growth spurt. We're coming out of the Great Recession, things are going well, they're adding bodies, and we need to make sure we have those bodies available when they're needed," Kerkhoff said.