A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Nicholas Wyman: COVID-19 provides an opportunity to re-imagine the workplace in the Bluegrass State


Kentucky was coming off historic lows in unemployment, hovering around 4%, when the pandemic struck, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Record high unemployment sent that figure surging to 16.6% in April; then it normalized to just 4.3% (that same as 82,714 jobless).

Then, when COVID-19 rose again as of August 27, the Bluegrass spiked again approaching 48,000 cases. As we await this month’s unemployment data with cautious optimism, we’ve got our eyes on an action plan for this state with a historic and robust record in apprenticeship. It’s got a big claim to FAME in this regard – more about that below.

Navigating COVID-19 is challenging for private and public sector employers globally as they strategize and marshal resources to stabilize business operations and service delivery. Few might consider the pandemic as offering employers opportunities to rethink and re-imagine their ideal future workforce – taking a long-range perspective. Apprenticeship holds a lot of promise, even in uncertain pandemic times. And, you might be surprised to learn Kentucky businesses are still hiring apprentices during the crisis as hard data support.

Tech training is crucial

Whatever the role, training in digital technology is a must to revamp, adapt and update skills. New technology is eliminating many jobs that demand only repetitive tasks while creating jobs that involve training, managing and developing that new tech. That’s why people who can work with tech are in high demand.

Right now, though, many Kentucky employers simply want to maintain their workforces. Poor cash flow and reserves to pay workers make that tricky. If employers can avoid mass layoffs to keep employees on the payroll, this is reliable insurance for sustainability.

If Kentucky businesses need to shut down or shrink hours of operations again, and working from home isn’t feasible, employers should aim to fill staff members’ time with skills development, both technical and soft. Boost participation by offering incentives. Handing staff learning and development opportunities is a powerful tool for engaging and retaining them. It’s a cost-saving measure in the long-run that lifts morale.

Modern workers need to be tinkerers and problem-solvers. They must know how to ask questions, when and how to get help, how to work in teams and how to communicate effectively with machines, their coworkers and superiors, too. The pandemic demands they be flexible, adapt, and continuously learn new skills.

Employers and HR managers who take a long-range view will pull out all stops to help current, and future staff develop these skills. Organizations with remote workers should explore massive open online courses (MOOCs), Khan Academy, Udemy, Skillshare or Google Digital Garage for free online classes, some of which offer certification.

Establish or expand apprenticeships to build for the future

One lasting impact of the pandemic could be changed expectations for government’s role in the economy. All levels of governments will rethink the scope of services, particularly for disease prevention and maintaining social infrastructure. As services expand, training and employing more people for public sector jobs will be needed.

Agencies should consider investing in their own and Kentucky’s future by continuing to fund and sponsor apprenticeships throughout these challenging times. Serving an apprenticeship is a proven way to skill up and prepare for a public sector career in health care, public safety, infrastructure, cybersecurity, education, green sciences or law enforcement, for example. Now is the time to invest in individuals to strategically plan for workforce needs as localities and the economy recover.

Consider the example of Kentucky FAME. The Northern Kentucky FAME chapter (NKY FAME) became a non-profit in October 2015 and is now entering its fifth straight year of mentoring apprentices. (FAME stands for the Kentucky Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education, by the way.) In response to an expanded initiative in Kentucky to boost the number of registered apprenticeship programs across the state, the NKY FAME chapter unanimously decided to register its apprenticeship program with the Kentucky Cabinet for Education and Workforce Development, Office of Employer and Apprenticeship Services in December last year.
 
The chapter is the first registered FAME program in the Commonwealth and the second in the country. Eleven apprentices were registered at the start, and now, less than a year later, 22 have joined their ranks, with more joining this month.
 
Registered apprenticeship continues to be on the rise and gaining popularity in Kentucky, and across the United States.  Registered apprenticeships numbers have more than doubled in Kentucky in recent years.  Companies such as the Northern Kentucky FAME chapter have embraced registered apprenticeship to fill the regional demand for skilled labor in advanced manufacturing.

They’ve also used it to:

• Leverage government subsidies for recruiting and technician sponsorship

• Offer economic security for the regional workforce; and

• Strengthen individual businesses through skill development, employee engagement, and decreased turnover.

FAME is one example of Kentucky’s diverse apprenticeships, which have been on the books since the 1930s. Over 300 diverse businesses offer paid apprenticeships throughout the state to more than 4,000 apprentices, and there are more than 3,000 apprenticed occupations across the country. About 16,000 individuals have taken part in an apprenticeship in Kentucky since the US Department of Labor started tracking apprenticeship data in 2007. You might have heard of TRACK – Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky.

Many other employers in Kentucky also find that apprenticeship programs increase employee loyalty, engagement and productivity for apprentices and their mentors. And some organizations are successfully using apprenticeships to diversify their workforce, with positive effects for the employer and the community. Diversity creates a built-in focus group, offering rich insights into customer service and product development.

Now is the right time to start an apprenticeship program. The Federal Government recently set aside millions of dollars in grants for such initiatives through the US Department of Labor’s Closing the Skills Gap program. The University of Louisville notched $4 million for its students under this program. Funds are there for the asking for local and state governments, as well as private employers and non-profits.

The coming weeks and months could be the best window of opportunity this decade to recruit talented people through apprenticeships. It’s also a prime opportunity for organizations to integrate skills-building and professional development initiatives to ensure they have a more robust, better-prepared workforce.

Nicholas Wyman, MBA, is a future work expert and speaker, the president of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America, and the author of Job U. Wyman has studied at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, and he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship. He is on Linkedln.


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