Kentucky expands program giving students credit for high-skilled manufacturing jobs

Markets Associated Press

Emily Houston wanted to be a doctor and then she wanted to be a nurse, but one thing she never wanted to do is make Post-It notes in Cynthiana.

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Yet that's what the 22-year-old has been doing for the past two years as part of a partnership between 3M and the Bluegrass Community & Technical College. And she couldn't be happier.

"When I first got into the program, I didn't want to do it at all," she said after her attempts at medical school at the University of Kentucky didn't work out. "I'm glad I got into it because it is something I really enjoy and it's something that I can see myself doing for the next 40 years, and that means a lot."

While working, she's been studying advanced manufacturing technology.

Stories like hers mean a lot to Kentucky manufacturers, who are having a hard time finding skilled workers for their increasingly technical plants. That's why state officials announced Wednesday they are expanding a program that enables students to earn college credit while working at manufacturing facilities. The expansion includes some of the state's largest employers, including GE Appliances and Ford Motor Company in Louisville, L'Oreal and Wagstaff in northern Kentucky and Altec and Crest Foam Industries in near Elizabethtown.

Students go to class two days a week while getting paid to work at a manufacturing plant three days a week for five semesters, or about two years. At the end, the company has no obligation to hire the student and the student has no obligation to keep working there.

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But most of the students get hired full time by their sponsoring companies, officials say.

"It was like pulling teeth to go to local high schools to talk about manufacturing," said Wil James, president of Toyota Manufacturing of Kentucky and chairman of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "Some of the students were like, 'Nah, I don't want to work in a dirty, dingy environment,' which is not the case."

James said the program, called the Kentucky Federation for Advance Manufacturing Education, can change that perception by exposing students to modern manufacturing facilities that rely on robots and the latest electronics, and need skilled workers to control them.

It can also address the state's shortage of skilled workers. Middle-skilled jobs, which require education beyond high school but short of a four-year college degree, make up 58 percent of the state's labor market. But just 48 percent of Kentucky workers have the training necessary to do those jobs, according to the National Skills Coalition.

The state's Economic and Workforce Development cabinet does not keep track of skilled worker shortages.

"We need people with the right skills to do the jobs of the future. And quite frankly we needed them yesterday," James said.

The program started in 2010 in central Kentucky, anchored by Toyota. Officials say 40 students have graduated from the program, and another 60 are currently enrolled. Classes in the new chapters in Louisville, northern Kentucky and Elizabethtown will begin in the fall.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said the program is modeled after similar apprenticeship programs in Europe, many of which begin in high school. He said he'd like it to expand statewide, and eventually branch out to other employment sectors beyond manufacturing.

"This apprenticeship type approach is really a wave of the future and is going to help us getting our people back to work and getting the quality of life up for everybody," he said.

Other chapters are planned across the state, including one in Pikeville in the coal region of eastern Kentucky, where officials hope out-of-work coal miners can find new careers in manufacturing.