Innovating to create a new workforce

Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey recently visited west Kentucky. Ramsey stopped in Paducah to learn more about our innovative programs, to share the vision of the cabinet and to receive updates on projects occurring throughout west Kentucky. The secretary’s visit revealed a few things important for the businesses in our region.

In 2016, the commonwealth initiated the Work Ready Skills Initiative with an aim of awarding $100 million to schools across the state that are working on innovative approaches to prepare students for high-demand technology jobs. Gov. Matt Bevin wants the program to be innovative collaborations between local communities, private sector employers and education institutions.

Grant recipients are using funding to upgrade career and technical education facilities and equipment. In west Kentucky, four projects were awarded, three in the first round of funding and one in the second round. A brief overview of each project is described below.

Caldwell County Schools was awarded $1.5 million to renovate its area technology center and purchase up-to-date equipment. The grant funding targets the training of students in the areas of health care, plumbing, and tool and die.

Christian County Schools was awarded $4.2 million to expand its technology center and upgrade equipment. The grant targets the training of students in the areas of advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and information technology, healthcare and construction trades.

Paducah Independent Schools was awarded $3.8 million to build a state-of-the-art technology center to be a Regional Innovation Hub. The grant funding targets the training of students in the areas of health care, information technology, cybersecurity, engineering technology, and logistics.

West Kentucky Partnership, led by the West Kentucky Community and Technical College, was awarded $3.04 million to provide equipment upgrades for twelve Purchase area school districts and area technology centers. The grant funding targets the training of students in the areas of advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business services and information technology, healthcare and construction trades.

During Ramsey’s visit to the area, each grant recipient joined him in a roundtable discussion while providing an update on their project. Listening to the updates, a few things stood out to me. While most of the projects haven’t been fully implemented, great progress has been made in many of the targeted sectors. Successful stories, like Paducah’s Sprocket, Inc. and the rebranded Four Rivers Career Academy in Fulton, were great examples of the impact already coming out of these grant programs.

As a region and commonwealth, we have a strong need for more skilled workers in the same sectors being targeted by these four projects. I sincerely hope the projects are successful by every measure possible, as the growth and development of our region needs each to be successful. Without additional workers in the targeted sectors, new and existing businesses will be limited in their west Kentucky growth potential.

The overarching theme discussed time and again was the importance of schools’ partnerships with the private sector. As each presenter shared the status of their project, they would cite multiple instances of providing students with real-world experiences in conjunction with private-sector businesses in the targeted sectors.

For example, some schools work with local hospitals and nursing homes, enabling students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-world health care settings, increasing their work-readiness. In Caldwell County, the school is working directly with local plumbing companies to provide work experiences with high school students as they are learning the trade.

As great as the examples from the schools were, with each project having private-sector partners, there is the desire for more partners. While the private sectors are important for the schools, there is real value received by the private organizations as well. From the schools’ perspective, student’s learning process is improved by apply what they are learning in the classroom.

From the business perspective, there are key advantages to working with schools on the projects. By working with the schools, a company will be able to provide direction on curriculum and training programs ensuring that students are being prepared in ways that are helpful to your company or organization. That is true with high schools, community colleges, and universities.

Companies offering real-world experiences to students will be able to see which students make great workers without a long-term commitment. In a sense, companies will get a sneak preview of the future worker and the first opportunity to connect with the students, who may be an employee in the future. The educational alignment between secondary and higher education is strong in our region. West Kentucky schools are really stepping up their game to create new and exciting ways to educate the next generation technical workforce, but they need the private sector.

Please consider getting involved with one of these efforts. If you are interested, you can contact one of the schools directly or contact me and I will connect you with the correct person.

Michael Ramage is the director of the Center for Telecommunications Systems Management (CTSM) at Murray State University and serves as the president of the Technology Council of West Kentucky. He can be reached at [email protected] or 270-809-3987.

Originally published in the Four Rivers Business Journal and available at

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