Members of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet have been touring far west Kentucky to discuss incorporating apprenticeship programs in schools and economic development opportunities in the IT and telecommunications fields. Matt Markgraf recently spoke with Deputy Secretary Mike Nemes and Communications Director Jarrad Hensley about these efforts ahead of a meeting at Murray State University.
With the announcement of Braidy Industries investing $1.3 billion in a manufacturing facility in northeast Kentucky, the recent expansion of Interapt in Louisville and a proposed drone-unmanned vehicle research and development center, people in far western Kentucky are wondering when developments like these might make their way to the region.
Mike Nemes said this is a goal as part of Governor Matt Bevin's effort to make Kentucky the 'manufacturing hub of the United States.' He said, however, there is a shortage of skilled laborers in the commonwealth and nationwide. He said he hopes an apprenticeship program will address this.
The idea, observed in a recent trip to Germany and Switzerland by Bevin, Labor Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey, Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner and others, is to place students in a curriculum "track program" to give them an option to pursue another avenue besides traditional college education, according to Nemes.
"College is fantastic, but with this curriculum also if a kid sees that math and science is something he'd like to do and you need that to rig a crane or do electrical work and so he may be interested in becoming an electrician and may be interested in going on to college and becoming an engineer," Nemes said.
Nemes said Switzerland, for example, was able to put 40% of their GDP into the school systems. (According to a presentation of the Swiss Apprenticeship Model on the State of Colorado's website, 40% of the country's private companies participate in the program).
IT and Telecommunications
An area of potential growth in far western Kentucky is in the IT and telecommunications sector. Nemes said the Labor Cabinet, in asking businesses what they need, has found that IT is an area of need. As such, the cabinet is looking to develop a program with high schools and universities to address this need.
At Murray State, Nemes and Hensley met with university officials and local businesses in the early stages of forming an IT and telecommunications council to address the shortage in the region among other issues. Hensley said identifying key stakeholders is part of the initial steps of getting this effort going and one of the primary roles of the Labor Cabinet in the area of workforce development.
Another issue affecting the region is "brain drain," that once people are trained in a certain area they tend to leave to seek jobs elsewhere (either due to lack of opportunity or competitive wages). Nemes said the issue seems to follow a "backwards" trend of people growing up in the region and leaving to find work and people coming in from outside of the region to fill any local positions available.
He said going off to college can be a good thing, but it's not the only thing and that a good living can still be made from working with your hands, "Factories are not the sweatshops and dirty places as when I was growing up." He noted that with regards to the IT sector - "If you're a welder, you need to know how to punch in the computer to weld. Not only do you just put your hood on and weld like the old days. The robots do a lot of it now."
Role of Post-Secondary Education
With an emphasis on placing resources into technical training, which is already established in Kentucky's community college system, particularly at West Kentucky Community and Technical College (namely areas like the Inland Logistics and Marine Institute), a question then becomes what is the role of a traditional postsecondary four-year institution?
Hensley said, "Our secondary institutions and postsecondary institutions aligning their curriculum to meet the needs of local and regional employers - that's essential. So when you're in high school you can see your career path ahead of you." He said a high school student needs to be able to see themselves segueing into college and visualize their careers many years in advance.
Nemes added that doesn't mean a sixth-grade student should identify themselves as a welder 'and that's it,' that they should be able to adjust. As an example, he said if a high school teaches a blueprint class - that can be used for electricians, builders and carpenters or someone who decides to go to a university to become a project manager or engineer. He said, "If you align your classes with what the businesses use, it may be a higher level than actually working with the hands. I think that's something that the universities need to do."
"The universities have always done a great job but sometimes they have their classes that don't relate to what you really [need to] get a job," Nemes said. He recalled his wife having gone to school to be an x-ray imaging tech and was forced to take music classes, but he joked that he didn't need her singing to him while taking his x-ray.
Some university programs have found creative ways of incorporating the arts into STEM areas. For instance, the Murray State Summer Art Workshop last summer called their program "STEAM" adding 'Arts' to STEM learning. As an example, the program taught high school students how to use a 3D printer and how to mold sculptures using the device.
Nemes said programs like that "thinking out of the box" can inspire students to learn skills they might otherwise neglect. He said if you show a student why math is important to build houses, robots or drones, then they're more apt to learn history or English and may find greater value in school.
State-funded programs like the Work Ready Skills Initiative (funding workforce development efforts in education systems) and "Justice to Journeyman" (addressing recidivism in prisons - Nemes said: "Most prisoners when they're coming out, their biggest fear is not having a job. So if they don't have a job, where do they go? Back to their old neighborhood where they were from and a lot of times they end up right back up in prison.") are part of efforts to boost the labor sector. He said training efforts also include reforms to the foster system, teaching children who age-out skills to enter the workforce.
A recent apprenticeship program geared towards women, minorities and veterans also used $900,000 in state funding in an effort to increase apprenticeships from 2,800 to double within three years. Hensley said President Trump's administration wants to expand apprenticeships by five million over the next five years.
The Labor Cabinet also oversees occupational safety and health (OSH). Nemes said in years past, "everybody looked at us as the bad guy" for citing businesses for violations. He said while the cabinet still does that, they are turning efforts to include education and training, teaching businesses safety practices to avoid citations.
"Most businesses like that because they want their people to be safe. It helps their insurance and it's the human factor. They want their people to stay with them," Nemes said.
Given national scrutiny over regulations (including workplace safety oversight) and the state Red Tape Reduction effort, one might naturally wonder with fewer regulations and requirements to track and log injuries, how the Labor Department might hold businesses accountable.
Nemes said fewer regulations are a good thing "because if you have too many stipulations you don't know what to adhere to. It's real simple: you should be safe." He added that the burdensome OSHA record keeping (a regulation enacted in 2016) needed to go away. "That was so burdensome that it needed to go away. It wasn't helping with safety, it was just tracking this and tracking that, that I think it needed to go away with and not be implemented."
"The Red Tape Initiative is a good thing," Nemes said. "Instead of our investigators worrying about paperwork all day long, they can get out and actually see what's going on and help people." In training efforts, Kentucky labor investigators will do a "wall to wall" analysis and show a business what needs to be done to be in compliance before any fines or penalties.
Hensley said the cabinet wants to work with employers on the front end, "Our number one objective at the labor cabinet is to make sure that our 1.9 million workers in the state of Kentucky, they go home, safe and sound. The same way they went into work."
Nemes said the training could help smaller businesses as larger ones can hire safety directors who know OSHA regulations 'inside and out.' Smaller businesses, he said, are primarily focused on running their businesses and simply haven't looked at regulations or can't afford a full time safety director.
In addressing cyber security issues as a matter of workplace safety, Nemes said Secretary Ramsey has talked about this issue and sees a job or apprenticeship opportunity in addressing this in the future.
Hensley urged people to sign up for the Governor's Safety and Health Conference and Exposition, May 8 - 12 in Covington.