If you think the world is changing too quickly, consider this: Almost two-thirds of kids in elementary school today will ultimately have jobs in careers that don’t even exist yet, according to research cited by the World Economic Forum.
That means business leaders and educators will have to work more closely than ever before to prepare young people for the workforce of the future. That’s especially important for a state like Kentucky where tens of thousands of jobs are already going unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers.
Local and state officials hope to address those workforce needs through a series of innovative programs designed to prepare young Kentuckians for success in the workplace. KET explored several of these initiatives in the program Pathways for Tomorrow’s Workforce.
When it comes to Kentucky’s workforce, the state has two basic problems.
“There are both a quality gap, we just don’t have the right skills, but there’s also a quantity gap, there just aren’t enough workers right now,” says Ted Abernathy, a North Carolina-based consultant who helps more than a dozen states with their economic and workforce strategies.
He contends society must rethink how people are educated and trained for jobs. Yes, young people need basic math, science, and reading skills, Abernathy says, but just as importantly, they need problem-solving skills and they must be adaptable. That’s because they will likely need to be retrained multiple times during their working lives to qualify for the new jobs that will become available as they grow older.
“What we need is changing rapidly,” says Abernathy, “so it’s really hard to hit a target that’s moving that fast.”
“I believe we are adjusting a bit too slow,” says Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis. “I don’t think we have gotten to the place where… the way we prepare kids aligns with the realities that they’ll face, the demands that they’ll face, both in post-secondary education and in the workforce.”
All students must gain proper reading and math skills, says Lewis, but then schools also need to provide career pathways that give youth multiple options for exploring jobs they may want to pursue after they graduate.
“We want kids to begin thinking very intentionally about the possibilities for their careers and their lives an early age – at least by middle school,” says Lewis.
Education officials want to provide all Kentucky students options for exploring career pathways in a variety of key employment sectors, including construction and trade skills, advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, business and information technology, and health services. Through preparatory training and real-world work experiences, students will be able to explore a sector that interests them and see the wide variety of jobs available to them within those career paths.
McKayla Hamlin is a prime example of this approach. She completed a pre-nursing career pathway program at McCreary County High School. As part of her studies, she shadowed a local dentist and discovered she loved that type of work. Now she is a student at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry and on track to graduate with a medical degree in 2022. She encourages all students to explore the career pathways available to them.
“I would say definitely just do it,” Hamlin says. “You’re going to get a lot of experience and it will definitely help you decide where you want to go, and once you decide, it’s going to launch you into so many opportunities.”
Students who successfully complete a health science pathway like the pre-nursing program in McCreary County receive a phlebotomy or nurse’s aide certificate that enables them to get a job right out of school. But like Hamlin, they may also find a similar career they’d rather pursue.
“When they get that work-based experience during that pathway, the kids get into that environment and they look around and they see, wow, there are a lot of other things going on here,” says David Horseman, Associate Commissioner of Career and Technical Training at Kentucky Department of Education.
Only 64 percent of Kentucky public school students are enrolled in such career preparatory programs. Horseman says better marketing to parents and children will boost that number. But those efforts shouldn’t just focus on high school students. He wants to reach out to elementary and middle school children to get them thinking about their career paths as well.
Students across the state are benefiting from similar efforts. At Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington, senior Daikerra Sweat is exploring how she can blend her passion for food and helping people into a career as a culinary psychologist. In the mountain counties, students at the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) are learning construction trades as well as design, creativity, and business planning skills by building small, portable dwellings called tiny houses.
Dessie Bowling, an associate director at KVEC, says the completed houses are auctioned off at the end of the school year, and the proceeds go to funding the program for future participants.
“What we found is that students, when they’re engaged in that work, they want to be there. They will come early and they will stay late,” Bowling says. “They want to work on these homes because they’re proud of them.”
Beth Davisson, Workforce Center Director for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, says real-world work experience in a student’s chosen career pathway doesn’t just benefit employers. It can help that young person better focus their educational options after high school.
“Most Americans regret their college or post-secondary choices,” says Davisson. “But those of us that don’t regret our choices got some sort of work-based learning experience before we entered a post-secondary decision… Some sort of internship, some sort of career pathway leads to much happier adults.”
The state Department of Education and Labor Cabinet have partnered on a new job training initiative called TRACK, or Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky. Participating high school students take their usual academic courses while they get technical training and on-the-job experience in a particular trade. Once they complete this pre-apprenticeship program and graduate high school, the students can go directly into a registered apprentice program for that skill.
“So it’s a pipeline for industry,” says Russell County Schools Superintendent Michael Ford. “It’s a pipeline for a career for these students.”
Russell County High School and the Lake Cumberland Area Technology Center have partnered with Dr. Schneider Automotive Systems, a Russell Springs manufacturer of car interiors, to offer a pre-apprenticeship program for advanced manufacturing skills like hot stamping and injection molding.
“We specifically hire students from high school,” says Plant Manager Torsten Langguth. “We think that younger people, especially in that age, 16 years old, are very motivated to learn. They have hidden talents, which we want to bring out. I always say they are like raw diamonds we can shape.”
Russell County High School senior Chris Roark says his school day begins with English class and ends with a shift at the Dr. Schneider plant.
“I have programmed robots,” says Roark. “I’ll adjust sensors. I’ll do anything that you can think of, maintenance wise.”
The TRACK program students not only get paid to work, but the time they put in on the job counts toward the journeyperson component of a full apprenticeship. Superintendent Ford says the students who complete the program will be qualified to work anywhere, but he hopes they stay in Russell County.
“I feel confident that the skills they’re getting right now are skills that they can take to other places and put that work,” says Ford. “They are going to be sought-after employees because of the skills they’re getting right now as part of the pre-apprenticeship program.”
In Mason County, some 40 students have completed the pre-apprenticeship program at Stober Drives, an industrial gearbox factory in Maysville.
“As a manufacturer in rural Kentucky, our biggest limitation to continued success and growth is our ability to find talent,” says Plant manager Peter Feil. “So we decided 12 years ago that we not only had to be in the manufacturing business, we had to be in people development business.”
Feil says an important benefit of the program is that students get to see what it’s like to work in a modern high-tech manufacturing facility. He says the young people learn that factory work can be exciting and fun.
For other small-town manufacturers to thrive in the commonwealth, they will need qualified labor. Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Derrick Ramsey says that requires better cooperation between public schools and local industries.
“We’re excited that education and business are now working together because for years and years they were in two different silos,” Ramsey says. “At this turning point in our world, we find that we have to work together for us to be successful.”
“For us to be competitive, we need our kids to be prepared for what happens next,” Ramsey adds.
But employers are seeking workers with more than just technical skills. They also want people who have what are known as soft skills or essential workplace skills of timeliness, dependability, teamwork, communication, and problem solving.
“Kentucky Chamber business members will tell you time and time again, essential skills is the number one workforce priority,” says Davisson. “They can train a technical skill but if you can’t get an employee that will show up on time, pass a drug screen, be a team player, there’s not much you can do.”
Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed a bill to make essential skills training mandatory for all Kentucky students. But some schools are already teaching their students that arriving on time for a work shift isn’t enough.
“Getting there early shows commitment and dedication,” says Hardin County Schools Superintendent Teresa Morgan
Students in her schools complete a work ethics certification that includes learning how to complete an employment application, securing references, and doing a mock job interview.
“Just imagine leaving high school with the ability to interview,” Morgan says. “When we set these up, the students are so nervous, and that’s how you know they feel the reality of the workforce that they’re going into.”
These career pathways, pre-apprenticeship initiatives, and essential skills classes illustrate how far job training in schools has evolved from the old days of shop class and industrial arts instruction.
“Career and technical education can no longer be vocational school of yesterday,” says Bridget Bloom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. “We have to be intentional about marrying academic mastery with career and technical pathways.”
All of these efforts still have room for growth, though, both in terms of making the programs available to all Kentucky students and getting young people engaged in them. Davisson says some 65,000 students are eligible for a work-based learning opportunity in the commonwealth, but so far only about 4,000 of them have enrolled in one of the programs.
Education Commissioner Lewis says parents can get the ball rolling by talking with their children — even those in elementary school — about what kind of work they’d like to do. He says that’s not to get them locked into one job for their entire working lives, but to simply get them thinking about what career path they’d like to be prepared for once they graduate from high school or college.
Ramsey says that includes thinking big.
“You can be anything you want to be,” he says. “Look at it, dream about it, and do it.”