In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.
As secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, Hal Heiner is leading Kentucky’s Work Ready Skills Initiative, which will provide $100 million in funding for projects that will help build a highly trained, modern workforce in Kentucky. In late January, $65 million was awarded to 25 projects; the deadline for the second round of funding was March 16.
Q: Could you describe the purpose and goals of the Work Ready Skills Initiative?
A. The legislature passed the initiative a year ago. It authorized a $100 million bond issue to ramp up facilities and equipment in career and technical education across the Commonwealth, with an understanding that technical education in many areas has been overlooked for a long time, and employers are in desperate need of employees with higher levels of skill and education.
Q: How are the public schools involved?
A: Every single application that was awarded involved a traditional public high school. They were a required partner in every application.
Q: And in some cases, they were the primary applicant?
A: Yes. For example, in one application, 12 superintendents in western Kentucky came together and partnered with several community colleges. They did a full inventory of industry equipment available for career and technical training and together submitted a single application. We encourage this type of regional cooperation so that we don’t have duplication.
Q: Why is the involvement of public schools critical to this program’s success?
A: In Kentucky, about 50,000 students graduate each year, and about 20,000 do not go on to postsecondary but into the workplace. Between robotics and technical equipment, today’s workplace requires a higher level of skill and education. On the education side, we need those students to have career and technical training. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to support yourself unless you have skills beyond those necessary for a high school diploma.
It’s not uncommon for a high school graduate to make 50 percent more in their first job if they have skills and education beyond the typical high school academic training. If we want those 20,000 students to move into better jobs, that needs to start in high school. We simply don’t have the capacity or equipment that is relevant. I’ve walked into technology centers that might have four machining tools, but many were supplied in the 1960s and 1970s. Those tools are important for foundational training, but we also need the computer programmable pieces of machining equipment, because that’s what our students will see in the workplace.
Q: Response to this initiative has been greater than you imagined?
A: We were shocked when we received 117 applications, with nearly $565 million in requests. When the legislature approved the $100 million, I thought we were golden for making a big impact, but it became clear that our 10-person committee would have to be strategic in determining the best applications so the state dollar would be leveraged the greatest to help both students and adults.
Q: You pared 117 applications to 25 projects that were funded?
A: Yes. And, of the $100 million, $65 million was awarded, leaving a second round of $35 million.
Q: Were two rounds of awards part of the original plan?
A: No, but because the first application period came so quickly, it was difficult for many school districts, working in conjunction with community colleges and private employers, to put their team and application together. There were several good proposals in the works that simply didn’t meet the July 2016 deadline. So the committee decided to reserve about $35 million for a second round. That also gives groups that weren’t successful the first round the chance to strengthen their applications and resubmit them.
Q: Describe how the projects were chosen.
A: The committee had many meetings, all open to the public and all available online. In the first round, because there was $565 million in requests but only $65 million available, the committee developed a scoring sheet with 12 weighted items like the amount of local money versus state dollars, number of jobs available, unemployment rate within 30 miles of the training facility, number of high school students who would benefit, how much training capacity would be increased. Using the scoring sheets, we narrowed it to 40 projects, and then had on-site interviews for projects under $1 million and in-person interviews with the committee for the larger projects.
Q: Was geographic distribution a factor in choosing projects?
A: The committee wasn’t focused on geographic distribution, but that’s how it ended up. The first 117 looked like a uniform splatter diagram with projects spread across the state. We have 10 workforce development board areas and every area ended up with a project.
Q: How will the 25 projects that were chosen be monitored going forward?
A: During the period from when the awards were made at the end of January until June, we are working on contracts with each organization on how the funds will be released. There is also discussion of performance metrics for the project. The committee required very detailed analysis that told how many high school students will be trained, how many adults will be trained at night on the same equipment, curriculum we are going to use, names of courses, the industry credentials that will be granted. All of that data has been collected and will go into a contract with the applicants, and part of that is performance metrics.
Q: What can be gained through the performance metrics?
A: I hope there will be additional investment by future legislatures, that by 2018, we can say, here’s the return on investment in Kentucky. These are the students that went through the program and look at the level of jobs they are in and how they have moved up their career path. Hopefully, this will convince our representatives and senators that this is some of the best money spent in the state in a long time.
Q: Some of these projects, especially those that involve equipment upgrades, can have an almost immediate impact. Those that require constructing new facilities obviously won’t.
A: That is correct. You can count on at least a year, year-and-a-half, to construct a facility. So if a project started later this year, we’d be looking at 2019, 2020 or so to start receiving data. But we can track right off the bat the change in number of individuals trained on upgraded or expanded equipment.
Q: What types of jobs will Kentuckians be trained for?
A: The focus is on five areas that have the most open jobs in Kentucky for the next five years: advanced manufacturing, health sciences, construction trade, distribution logistics and business services and IT. We call them our primary industry sectors.
Q: What resources were used to determine future job needs?
A: The Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board, a group of approximately 50 people, most from the private sector, has over the past year studied Kentucky’s primary employment sectors, so their work has informed the Work Ready Skills Initiative.
Also, KCEWS, the Kentucky Center for Education Workforce Statistics, has a new piece on its home page, called the Kentucky Future Skills Report. You enter your region and the system shows the five-year pipeline needs for some 1,000 occupations. There is no other tool in the country as powerful as this, in terms of what jobs pay, how many are needed by the state, by the region.
Q. After the first round, are any adjustments, any changes, being made to the process?
A: An applicant going into the second round has a lot more information than in the first round. By going to our website, they can see the 12 items that the committee felt were most important. Each committee member assigns a score of one to five to those items, and then it’s tallied for the committee.
The committee also decided it wanted to see a significant investment from either the school district or the community college to show that this was important to them. In most, maybe all, of the larger awards, there was a significant bonding component from the school district or community college that covered a good part of the cost of construction. So even though $65 million was awarded, the initiative actually leveraged $150 million in facilities and equipment.
The committee also looks at how closely the project matches what needs are and how applicants can advance it on their own so that state dollars aren’t the leading effort, but come beside to make it a reality today instead of five or 10 years from today.
Q: Better equipment and training facilities are tangible improvements; are there any intangible benefits of this initiative?
A: We heard reports from all over about people working together for the first time. They were excited that there was a need for private employers to be in the same room with superintendents and high school principals and community college presidents and administrators. There was a buzz across the state about career and technical education that we weren’t hearing before.