You could call Derrick Ramsey a matchmaker of sorts. It’s his job to match the Kentuckians who could be working but aren’t with the 200,000 jobs he says are currently unfilled in the commonwealth.
The trick is getting the available labor trained with the skills employers need today.
As secretary of the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, Ramsey oversees an array of occupational training and workforce development programs. He appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his agency’s efforts to help people around the state, including those with criminal records, improve their employment prospects.
Apprentices Train for Open Jobs
Ramsey estimates there are roughly 600,000 unemployed or under-employed Kentuckians who could help fill those open jobs if they had the proper training. Slightly more than half of those people have no high school diploma or GED certificate. Ramsey says another 200,000 or so individuals lost their jobs during the recession and simply stopped seeking new work. He says recent high school graduates, veterans just mustering out of the military, people with disabilities or other health conditions, and individuals completing their prison sentences comprise the rest of the potential labor pool.
And each one of those groups poses a unique challenge for the Labor Cabinet.
“Forty years ago, when I was coming out of high school, there were two onramps to success,” Ramsey says. “One onramp was college-prep, the other onramp was vocational [schools].”
In the ensuing decades, Ramsey says people began to look down on vocational training and many trade schools closed. That’s left a deficit in the number of skilled workers in the commonwealth. What’s worse, many of the tradesmen and women available in the state are approaching retirement: Ramsey says the average age of a skilled worker is around 57 years old.
To reverse that trend, the cabinet has launched state-sponsored apprenticeship programs in a range of trades from construction and manufacturing, to health care, information technology, and telecommunications. Apprentices get classroom instruction and on-the-job training, and they earn money at the same time.
The apprentice programs not only benefit the students who receive a nationally recognized certification in their particular skill, but Ramsey says employers get a stable pool of workers who can immediately step into open jobs.
“For employers… the average return on a dollar that’s invested in an apprentice, you return $1.50,” Ramsey says. “That’s a 50 percent return in addition to being able to retain people, in addition to not having that revolving door, and the cost to HR.”
From Prison to Productive Work
The Labor Cabinet is also emphasizing job training for the 16,000 Kentuckians who are in jail or prison. The goal is to position inmates for productive work after their sentences are complete in hopes that will reduce recidivism. The secretary says the people who leave jail without a job, family supports, or transportation are likely to reoffend within the first two years after release.
“They aren’t bad people, they just made bad decisions,” Ramsey says. “My belief is that when someone does time on this side of the wall for their crime… when they come out, they should not have to serve it again.”
Criminal justice reforms passed by the 2017 General Assembly should make it easier for inmates to transition to work on the outside. Senate Bill 120 contained provisions that enable private companies to employ prisoners within correctional facilities or through work-lease opportunities. The money that participating inmates earn can be used to pay restitution or child support obligations, or can be saved for their release.
Another program called Justice to Journeyman will train inmates for journeyman credentials as a carpenter, electrician, HVAC installer, or other skilled trades. The initiative is slated to be available in seven adult and juvenile correctional facilities in the state.
But preparing prisoners with job skills is only half the battle, since some employers are reluctant to consider much less hire job candidates with a criminal record. Ramsey says some larger businesses already hire ex-cons, but don’t publicize the practice because they don’t want the exposure. He says what’s needed is a culture change to reverse the stigma traditionally placed on those who have done jail time.
“If we’re going to be the great place that I think Kentucky can be, we have to look at things differently,” Ramsey says.
In hopes of setting an example for the private sector, the Bevin Administration implemented an executive order last year that removes questions about criminal records from employment applications for many state government jobs. Ramsey says the move is meant to show private business owners that state government has “skin in the game” when it comes to hiring people who have done jail or prison time.
Making Workplaces Safer
Ramsey says many of the Labor Cabinet’s job training initiatives are in partnership with other state agencies, including the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, and the Cabinet for Economic Development, as well as with public school districts and state colleges and universities.
“One of the things as I’m walking out the door that I’m going to judge my team on, whether we were successful or not, are the number of collaborations that we have with other cabinets,” Ramsey says. “We, as Labor Cabinet, cannot do this alone, we can’t. But collectively there’s nothing we can’t do.”
In addition to training and apprenticeships, Ramsey says the Labor Cabinet continues its duties with workers’ compensation claims and occupational safety and health. He says work place injuries and fatalities have decreased since he became secretary in late 2015. The injury rate, according to Ramsey, was 3.7 people per 100 workers in his first year. (That’s compared to 8.4 per 100 workers in 1996, when the cabinet first started to keep such scores.) Last year, Ramsey says the rate was 3.4 people, and his goal is to get that below the national average of 2.9 injured per 100 workers.
As for fatalities, the secretary says there were 90 workplace deaths in the commonwealth in 2016. In 2017, that number dropped to 72. Through better education and compliance, Ramsey says Kentucky businesses saved more than $26 million in workplace health and safety fines last year. He says that means fewer people got injured on the job, and employers saved money on workers’ comp claims and costs associated with lost productivity.
For more on jobs and job training in the commonwealth, watch Filling Kentucky Jobs, a KET forum on workforce development issues.