U.S. Rep. James Comer came to Paducah on Friday to talk about workforce development and bringing skilled workers where their talents are needed within the state.
Comer took a tour of the Paducah Innovation Hub Friday morning. The facility will house several traditional technical center classes -- including carpentry, welding, automotive technology and electricity -- in addition to classes in computer-aided design, engineering, art and robotics. It also will house a gun range for Paducah Tilghman High School's Navy ROTC program and offices for the school district.
The Paducah Innovation Hub is scheduled to be completed this summer and be open for classes when the 2020-21 school year begins on Aug. 11.
Paducah Independent School District Superintendent Donald Shively led a tour of the $26.2 million, two-story building next to the Paducah Area Technical Center, which it will replace in August.
Following the tour, Comer had a roundtable discussion with Paducah school district officials; representatives of Ray Black and Son Construction, which is the contractor for the construction of the Paducah Innovation Hub; and administrators of Associated General Contractors, which sponsors The Sun's weekly articles about area technical center standout students. They discussed the need for skilled workers throughout the state.
"The biggest problem (that I hear from constituents) is finding workers, especially the shortage of skilled workers," Comer said to open the roundtable. "I've said for years that the old business model of graduating from high school and then going to college and getting a four-year degree -- just to have a four-year degree -- hasn't really benefited the students very well when they graduate with a worthless degree and a lot of student loan debt.
"I think a lot of businesses would take advantage of the strong economy right now if they had confidence that more invested capital would be worthwhile if they could find more employees. The shortage of employees is really the biggest detriment to growing our economy right now."
Comer called the Paducah Innovation Hub "the future of education" and said that officials in Washington, D.C., are showing more support for the kind of educational opportunities that similar technical centers provide.
Comer serves on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, and said there is bipartisan agreement for the need to develop the workforce, and the Paducah Innovation Hub is a means of getting that done.
"I'm glad that you've got the funding for a facility like this, you've got the school system that's 'all in' on it and the community college is 'all in' on it," he said. "More importantly, you're blessed in this community with business partners and industry partners that pay good wages.
"When you're talking about the barge companies and you're talking about the construction companies here and businesses like (Computer Services Inc.), those are the highest-paying jobs, per se, in my congressional district."
Shively said afterward that the visit by Comer was encouraging, especially when the congressman spoke of the facility as the future of education.
"He said this was the evolution, the version of where education is going in the 21st century," Shively said. "This is really the evolution of what public education should look like to align to the needs of a global economy. I think that's vital for the future of our community."