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Education Attainment Alone Won’t Transform Kentucky: Reconsidering Policy, Practice, and Attitude

I am an educator. With the exception of a few brief years I spent in law enforcement as a very young man, I have spent all of my career in K12 and postsecondary education. From my earliest days as a high school teacher in the New Orleans Public Schools, to my time in teacher preparation in North Carolina, to my academic home today at the University of Kentucky, I’ve spent my career teaching and supporting students as they advance their education and achieve their academic goals. There’s not a greater proponent of education attainment than me. But education attainment alone is simply not sufficient for preparing the workforce Kentucky needs to retain and attract high wage jobs.

Kentucky has made tremendous strides over the last few decades with education attainment. Our graduation rates are much better than they were a few decades ago. Higher percentages of Kentuckians are literate and have high school diplomas. Increasing numbers of Kentuckians are going on to pursue postsecondary education and earning postsecondary credentials and degrees. In fact, in some years Kentucky has led the South in gains in high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree attainment. Those are all achievements that every Kentuckian should be proud of. Educationally, Kentucky is not the same state it was even 20 years ago. But we still have quite a ways to go. And we won’t get to where we need to be without making a course adjustment.

While it’s great that many more Kentuckians have high school diplomas and postsecondary degrees, we must come to terms with the reality that Kentucky’s significant increases in education attainment have not translated into the economic progress we so direly need. And that’s in large part because the diplomas, credentials, and degrees many Kentuckians have earned have not been aligned with the skills, credentials, and degrees that business and industry are demanding.

If Kentucky is to become what it has the potential to become economically, the state’s workforce has to become its strength, not its liability. To do that, young people and not so young people have to get the skills and credentials business and industry are demanding. It’s no secret what those in-demand areas are. In Kentucky, certifications and two- and four-year degrees in the medical fields, advanced manufacturing, and information technology would well-situate a young worker.

Below are a few changes in policy, practice, and thinking I believe Kentucky should consider for better aligning education attainment with workforce preparation. Better alignment of the two is essential if we are to become the economic engine we have the potential of becoming.

  1. Kentucky’s high school diploma has to be more meaningful. Higher graduation rates are good, but higher completion rates are not incredibly meaningful if the diploma students earn  is useless. The hard truth is, comparatively, it doesn’t take that much to earn a high school diploma in Kentucky. Our state’s current minimum requirements are neither rigorous enough to adequately prepare a student going on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Kentucky, nor rigorous enough to ensure that a student not pursuing additional postsecondary education will learn a skill she can use to earn a wage sufficient for supporting herself. That’s unacceptable for Kentucky and it has to change.
  2. Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions must produce more students with credentials and degrees that match in-demand job sectors. There are more than a few good paying jobs that go unfilled in Kentucky. Eventually, some of those jobs are filled with skilled workers who come from places outside of Kentucky; and in other instances, the state’s skilled workforce challenges result in businesses deciding to put off expansion in Kentucky or to locate operations in other states with less severe workforce challenges. We have to turn the tide. Further, we need Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions to place greater emphasis on program development and program expansion in areas that lead to high paying jobs in high demand sectors.
  3. Kentucky’s parents and teachers have to change their mindsets about career and technical education. Too many students who would enjoy and be incredibly successful in technical fields that require less than a four-year degree have been inappropriately pushed into four-year institutions and into bachelor’s degree programs. In some cases, those programs have not aligned with students’ interests and/or strengths. An in other cases, those programs have not been aligned with jobs. In either case, the student has been inappropriately advised and shortchanged. The thinking that all high school graduates should go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduating high school, regardless of what that bachelor’s degree is in, is wrong.
  4. Kentucky’s students should know that having a bachelor’s degree in any field will not necessarily lead to greater employment opportunities and higher wages than having an associate’s degree or an industry recognized certification. While on average, bachelor’s degree holders earn more than associate’s degree holders, there is substantial variation in the data across fields and majors.  For example, some bachelor’s degrees are intended to prepare students for further study in graduate school, and are not expressly designed for preparing students for job opportunities immediately following undergraduate degree completion.
    • As students are making institution, degree, and program decisions, they should do their homework. Students should be asking questions about recent degree and program completers, including whether those graduates have found jobs in their fields, where they are working, and how much they are earning as early career workers. Those are legitimate questions; ones which should help to inform students of what their best postsecondonary program options are. With better information, I am convinced that larger numbers of Kentucky students would decide to enroll in programs that are better aligned with their interests and strengths, and more likely to lead to the employment and wage outcomes they desire.

Community and Technical College: A First Choice for Kentucky Students

Community college can be students’ first choice. And for many students, community or technical college should be Plan A; not because those students are less academically capable than their four-year college going classmates, but because their career interests are better aligned with career and technical programs and credentials offered at community and technical colleges. For too long, parents, teachers, and school counselors have sold community college only as the option for students who struggle academically, or who come from families without the financial resources to make four-year college a first choice right out of high school. While both of  those reasons are valid for considering community college, those are not the only reasons.

As high school students consider postsecondary education and career options, they should think seriously about jobs and careers they feel most drawn to, the kinds of careers they believe they can find happiness in, and where they believe their strengths to be. As well, students should make use of available data when making postsecondary education and training decisions. What data? Data about the employment and earnings outcomes for academic majors and certificate programs they are considering. Students should know whether or not those who have completed such programs were able to find employment in their field. Students should also know in very concrete terms what the earnings are for completers of programs they are considering. Students should not have to guess about whether program completers find jobs within their field and how much they earn.

As thoughtful and informed young people going through this exercise, I am confident that many students will consider community college as a first choice; not based on their academic abilities or deficiencies, but because programs offered at community colleges are best suited to get them into the jobs and careers that interest them. Enrolling in programs at the local community college does not mean that a student is not cut out for four-year college, or that s/he could not have made it academically at a four-year college. Enrolling at the community college is a choice; and quite honestly, it’s a choice that not nearly enough high school graduates are making. As a nation, our failure to enroll larger numbers of high school graduates at community and technical colleges is crippling our economy. We are not producing nearly enough workers with the skills that many American employers need. I’m talking primarily about middle-skill jobs.

Middle-skill jobs are those that require education and training greater than a high school diploma but less education than a bachelor’s degree.  Middle-skill jobs make up the largest part of America’s and Kentucky’s labor market. According to the National Skills Coalition, between 2010 and 2012, 54% of job openings in Kentucky will be for middle-skill jobs. But Kentucky has a pretty significant middle-skill gap. While middle-skill jobs account for 58% of Kentucky’s labor market, only 48% of Kentucky’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level. That’s a significant difference from what we see at the high-skill and low-skill job levels. Kentucky’s high-skill and low-skill workers outnumber the high-skill and low-skill jobs available. There is tremendous opportunity, however, for workers at the middle-skill level. And these are good-paying jobs. Truth be told, many workers at the middle-skill level have earnings that surpass those of workers at the high-skill level.

So regardless of whether students are academic stars or need a little extra help, I advise all students to take a look at the programs their community and technical colleges have to offer. Not only is there tremendous career training opportunity there, but it might just be the place where they find their passion.