The federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires the creation of a 5-year comprehensive regional and local workforce development strategic plan to meet U.S. Department of Labor requirements. West Kentucky Workforce Board (WKWF) and GRADD, Green River Area Development District, are the two lead partners responsible for planning and drafting the joint plan.

The workforce boards are in partnership with respective staff, employers, chambers of commerce, community-based organizations, economic development entities, and higher education institutions.

April 8 the workforce boards and their regional partners met for the initial full planning session, which reviewed the regional plan draft.

“We will be working on this until the end of April,” said Sheila Clark, director of the West Kentucky Workforce Board.

On April 30, both the regional and local plans will be available for 30 days for public comment.

The West Region is one of 5 regions in Kentucky, wherein 10 workforce boards administer and manage workforce development strategies for those regions. Within the West Region, there are two workforce boards, WKWF and GRADD. The West Region is comprised of western Kentucky and Green River communities — 24 counties.

Per West Region planning, seven occupational sectors were reviewed: advanced manufacturing, agriculture and food, cultural industries, construction, health care, business and information technology, and transportation and logistics.

GRADD Director Jodi Rafferty said “It’s interesting in looking at the data that overall, if you look at the averages of 2019, the unemployment rate has not necessarily increased as much as we might think it had.”

December 2019 seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the West Region was 4.7%. The West Region average workforce participation rate was 55% with a median income of $46,000, according to the plan’s March 2021 data.

“This year because of the COVID environment, and much of the learning being virtual, we have had a hesitancy on the part of some our individuals to return to training programs,” Clark said. “That has caused a concern that we haven’t had some of our individuals that were dislocated taking advantages of some of those opportunities.”

Rapid response teams carry out and oversee rapid response activities in the West Region to support and assist in workforce development.

“A Rapid Response Plan is created to meet the specific need of the company in crisis, and all staff are emailed the response plan and necessary timeframes,” according to the plan.

National Dislocated Worker Grants awarded by the Department of Labor to workforce development agencies have supported workforce development.

“We are focusing on those folks who have been laid off due to COVID. Trying to place them in some temporary work until they’re able to find a permanent job,” Rafferty said.

As of the second quarter of 2020, the average worker in the West Region earned an annual wage of $45,136, while average annual wages per worker increased 1% in the West Region over the past 10 years. The state’s 2020 second quarter average annual wages were $50,336.

“We partner heavily with our Kentucky community and technical college schools,” Rafferty said. “We are finding that by being able to offer short-term types of programs, sometimes people are more inclined to do something that’s not going to take so long.”

These career and technical educational objectives align with the state’s workforce development strategy. Repeatedly, the lack of skills and employment barriers in the West Region challenge workforce growth.

Barriers to employment include access to affordable childcare, access to affordable housing, technology and broadband infrastructure, minor criminal offense records, disabilities.

West Kentucky Workforce Board business liaison Molly Deahl said “in our area, we have youth contractors who work with the 18-24-year-old population who have significant barriers to employment, such as having a record or being a parent.”

According to the plan, technical skills among the western Kentucky workforce is underdeveloped, therefore employers in coinciding industries are consistently facing labor shortages.

Employers are also stifled by “talent stealing” and “job hopping.”

Deahl said “job hopping and talent stealing are common occurrences, not just in our region, but across the country. And they are not new.”

Talent stealing is when another company pursues employed individuals and recruits them. Job hopping is frequent among the younger demographic. It happens when job seekers stay for 1-2 years at a job and quit for a higher-paying job.

“Some employers require pre-employment testing such as the TABE Test (Test of Adult Basic Education), which is a common test used to determine a person’s skill levels and aptitudes. Some have their own test that they provide, that helps determine their level of motor skills, which is critical if they’re working production in a factory. Others simply require a drug screen and background check,” Deahl said.

Additionally, labor market data and employment guides are barriers for workforce entrants, especially in the early stages of job hunting when job and industry data is crucial for the job seeker.

In 2019, Caldwell County’s labor force was 5,473. There were 5,200 people employed; 273 people were unemployed. The unemployment rate was 5%. Comparatively, in 2018, the West Region unemployment rate was 5.1%, according to the plan — the West Region is experiencing lower unemployment rates, despite the pandemic.

In compiling 2020 western Kentucky industry and wage data, the regional plan identified government, health care/social assistance, manufacturing, and retail trade industries as the largest sources of employment.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, the top five college majors in the West Region were liberal arts/sciences, LPN, and electrician, business administration and management, and welding technology/welder.

“The surge of interest in health care and skilled trades most likely has to do with the available jobs in the region and the sustainable wages associated with these careers,” according to the plan.

Model occupations that have proven to be sustainable and popular among the workforce are CDL Class A, lineman and welding. These are short-term programs that provide readily available employment opportunities, locally and nationally. Further, they’re high paying jobs.

Some of the local and regional area partners are the Kentucky Small Business Development Center (KSBDC), KY Innovation Hubs, KY Pitch, GroWest, and Murray State’s Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Development.

The occupational outlook, according to the plan, indicates substantial growth within retail, food preparation/serving, and material moving industries over the 2018-2028 timeframe, accounting for the majority of occupations.

During the same time period, there will be an estimated 13,699 fast food and counter worker job openings in western Kentucky.

Office clerks, general occupations will see the lowest number of job openings during the same period, 3,086.

The leading industry is manufacturing, it has the highest annual wage overall — between $54,000-$59,000.

Industries that have the highest annual wages, yet reflect substantially low employment rates are utility, mining, and company management.

Sustaining robust partnerships with workforce development personnel makes economic stability possible, and cultivates labor market opportunities.

The strongest relationships for such enterprising work are among local workforce boards, employers, educators, and economic development professionals.

What’s more, employer feedback provides invaluable data that calls to action necessary improvements be made within soft skill, screening requirements, and other employability concerns.

“As our collective labor force continues to decline, it is our mission to get individuals back to work, and with the means to provide for their families in these difficult times,” according to the plan. “The region has yet to regain re-recession employment levels.”

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