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In Northern Kentucky, Understanding Context is Key to Fixing Workforce Pipeline

Last month Gateway Community and Technical College released a report to the community on their role in “Increasing the Advanced Manufacturing Talent Highway.” In response to the report, the current Gateway Board Chair was asked to comment in an Enquirer column, (“Gateway needs more students in high tech manufacturing”) written by Amanda Van Benschoten. He said, "The region is counting on us to deliver on our commitments. The community is looking to us (Gateway) for leadership on this important issue....”
 
In Northern Kentucky, we have leaders that are committed to addressing this problem through learning from past experiences, because understanding the context of how and why we got here is crucial to solving our workforce problems. 
 
The impact the recession had on the workforce pipeline, the negative perception of Adv. Manufacturing by the public, as well as how the state has decided to fund our post-secondary institutions, have all played a role in creating the hole we are in. It is going to take the entire community, working together, to dig us out. 
 
How bad is our current workforce situation?
 
A local manufacturer that employs thousands of people in our region recently told me his company is hiring engineers from outside the country because they can’t find enough qualified candidates here. 
 
This was a private discussion, and he was truly concerned for our region. 
 
During my first meeting with Trey Grayson after he was named President of the NKY Chamber, I told him addressing the region’s workforce issues was going to be one of his biggest challenges early on. Leading up to Trey’s arrival, I’d met with businesses from around the region as the Chamber’s Interim President, and heard that kind of story over and over. 
 
I would hear, by and large, people were happy with the programs at Gateway. They didn’t have a problem with teachers or facilities. No, the big concern was the lack of students in the pipeline. The numbers just aren’t enough to meet the projected need.
 
How did we get here?
 
After two years (2008-2009) of story after story on how manufacturers were laying people off, it became exceedingly difficult to get students into the pipeline. Why go into a field that not only isn’t hiring, but is letting people go? 
 
Flash back to 2010 and ask a group of parents if they would even consider encouraging their child to go into Adv. Manufacturing? I think the majority would answer “No”. 
 
And it wasn’t just because of the layoffs and the recession. It was also because manufacturing still had a stigma of being a less than desirable career. That stigma continues today. 
 
It is a shame, because Adv. Manufacturing today is a highly technical, highly lucrative career choice. 
 
But even after new apprenticeships, increased salaries, paying student fees, etc., even after a number of 
 
columns and stories, even after some high school visits, the messaging still isn’t getting through. 
 
And where is our state’s commitment to solving the workforce problem? 
 
Ten years ago, a little less than half of Gateway’s budget came from state funding. My last year on the Gateway Board that number had dropped to less than 20%. 
 
While tuition increases over time made the news, people seemed to overlook the fact that our Kentucky community college system (KCTCS) receives significantly less per student than any of the other post-secondary institutions in our state. 
 
As a community, we still aren’t doing enough. 
 
We aren’t consistently meeting with parent groups, students, counselors, etc. We aren’t using our collective resources to run ads on changing public perception of manufacturing, and to inform them that manufacturing in Northern Kentucky is booming. 
 
We need to tell the story of how students can enter an apprenticeship program, and after 4 years be making over $50,000 a year with no student debt! We need to explain that Adv. Manufacturing isn’t a dirty shop floor anymore. It is cutting metal with lasers, using computers. 
 
Solving this challenge is bigger than Gateway Community and Technical College, or any of the other schools in our region. It is going to take a community wide effort to solve this workforce pipeline issue. 
 
All the organizations involved with workforce are going to have to collaborate together with a cohesive regional workforce effort.
 
In addition, we need every elected official, at every opportunity, to highlight our workforce needs and opportunities. We need our state and federal officials to make public policy decisions that help students navigate their way to the certifications and degrees they need to become employed in the fields our employers need. 
 
Using a basketball analogy, we need a “full court press” on informing the public about the workforce situation. Understanding the context of how and why we got here, we can collectively attack the problem. 
 
The bottom line is this, if we don’t address our workforce issues, we are all going to lose. But if we, as a region, pull our collective efforts and resources together to focus on filling the pipeline, we can be the national model that thrives with innovation, talent and prosperity.
 
Brent Cooper is President/Owner of C-Forward, Inc.  He is a past Chair of the NKY Workforce Investment Board, a past Chair of the NKY Chamber, and a past member of the Gateway Community & Technical College Board of Directors