Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Commentary

June 13, 2014

COMMENTARY: Skilled workforce vital for city’s future

GLASGOW — There are many things to be done to make our community more attractive to industry.

Of recent note is the push to build a new speculative building in Highland Glen Industrial Park. It is a time-sensitive item that must be tackled quickly because there is not a space in the city for a perspective industrial client.

While that is an immediate concern, there is a long-term issue we as a community must find a way to address: developing a skilled workforce.

We reported recently that Fortis Manufacturing is expanding its facility in the industrial park. They are adding on to their building and installing a new press that will open different business opportunities.

When I spoke to the owner of Betatech, Rob Kunjah, he wanted to discuss what he thought was the biggest barrier to further expansion of his business. Fortis is a subsidiary of Betatech, which is a Canadian manufacturer of automotive parts. The Glasgow plant is the only one the company has in the U.S.

Kunjah said the greatest obstacle to growing his local facility is the lack of qualified employees. In Canada, he said, there is an apprenticeship program whereby individuals are trained and work at the same time. Many of his employees there, he said, utilize the program to gain the necessary skills in order to be qualified for the work at his company.

Kunjah said since deciding to locate Fortis in Glasgow in 2011, he has had discussions at the state level about developing an apprenticeship-style program in Kentucky. It would help his industry and all industries, he said.

Brian Nickerson, the manager of the local Fortis facility, said he had 28 employees on the day I went by to shoot photos of the expansion. He said he would like to have 32, but has difficulty finding people who are qualified enough to hire. There are technical skills they need that are not being developed. He said they must train every employee on skills that an apprenticeship program would cover. That slows the development of employees and the growth of his facility.

“There are more than two million open jobs in the U.S., in part because employers can’t find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills they need.” General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt and American Express CEO Ken Chenault wrote in a 2011 Wall Street Journal opinion piece.

The jobs that are open do not require four-year degrees, but do require employees with high-level math competency and advanced technical understanding. These jobs, by the way, also pay well above the local market average.

The upside of an apprenticeship is that the skills learned are often transferable from one business to the next. A person who learns skills to be a baseline employee at Fortis Manufacturing will also be employable by other technical industries.

There are states, such as Washington, that do have such programs. They offer apprenticeships in a variety of fields, including manufacturing, healthcare, even law enforcement.

What works in Canada or what works in Washington may not work in Kentucky, but I believe these things can be adapted to better fit our population. In the meantime, though, I wonder if we can look at doing something locally.

Barren County is home to two strong public school districts. It has a solid manufacturing base, though it has shrunk in recent years. We have a strong Western Kentucky University regional campus. We have the South Central Kentucky Community and Technical College and all its skilled-trades focused resources. There are many motivated individuals who are willing to put their efforts behind causes about which they feel passionately. We have jobs available.

What we need is a system locally that allows us to help those wanting to work to refine and enhance their skills so that they can be more employable. A stronger workforce will itself attract more industry to our community.

James Brown is digital editor for the Glasgow Daily Times. He also reports on business and agriculture. Contact him at jbrown@glasgowdailytimes.com Follow him on Twitter @jbrowngdt.

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