KY hopeful grant will help close tech skills gap, create jobs

KY hopeful grant will help close tech skills gap, create jobs
Hal Heiner (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Hal Heiner (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Rich Gimmel (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Rich Gimmel (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Andrew Foster (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Andrew Foster (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Leah Marcy (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Leah Marcy (Source: WAVE 3 News)

FRANKFORT, KY (WAVE) - High school shop classes have more than changed. Either they're growing. Or gone.

"In order to make it into the middle class, you've gotta be able to leverage automation and technology in your job," Kentucky's Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner said Wednesday. "So that there's industry-relevant equipment. That what we're training for really matches up with what the workforce looks like."

"I can hire college graduates all day, for $30-35,000 a year," said Rich Gimmel, owner of Louisville's Atlas Machine & Supply. "But I cannot find skilled machinists who make double that."

Kentucky is among 10 states that JP Morgan Chase has awarded $2 million New Skills for Youth grant, designed to help close what Gov. Matt Bevin considers a "tech skills gap" by aligning high school training to make seniors either job-ready or college-career ready when they've earned their diplomas.

"I play with these things every day," said Andrew Foster, of the 3-D printers and other tools that allow for hands-on learning at the Franklin County Career & Technical Center. "I've learned basic coding. I can write in two (computer) languages now.

Fully nine of every 10 students in high school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programs are boys.

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"But we get it," Leah Marcy said. "Even though there's only 2-3 people in my class at STEM who are female, it's very easy for us."

Marcy's focusing on a dual-degree in electrical and mechanical engineering. Breckinridge County's Robert Williams opted to become a journeyman machinist at Atlas. As a 22-year-old apprentice, he brought home $60,000 in 2016.

"There's always gonna be a need for it and you'll always have a job," he said. "And I'm two steps ahead. I don't owe any money (college loans)!"

"There are five jobs waiting for every graduate from an Advanced Manufacturing Technology program," Gimmel said.

Even before Republicans flipped Kentucky's House of Representatives from Democratic control for the first time in 96 years, Bevin had persuaded lawmakers to borrow $100 million to fund tech skills grants across the Commonwealth.

Last week, organized labor claimed he targeted unions after GOP super-majorities passed right-to-work legislation. Employees are no longer are required to join unions or pay dues to get or keep jobs in union-represented shops.

The General Assembly also repealed Kentucky's prevailing wage law, which mandated that contractors pay union-scale wages for work on taxpayer-dollar-financed construction projects.

Heiner denied that state grants are designed to squeeze out union-sponsored apprenticeships.

"The union training programs are very important," Heiner said. "(They've) helped a lot of people go on to a fulfilled life and need to continue to do that."

The JPMorgan Chase grant will be spread across multiple centers, according to Kentucky Education Commissioner Dr. Stephen Pruitt

"Sustainability is a big component of what we do going forward," he said. "We're looking at ways to do that, including our Legislature (in 2018)."

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Administration officials also are mindful of the brain drain, losing skilled workers to other states offering more or better opportunities.

Foster has been accepted to the University of Cincinnati after he graduates from Franklin County High School this spring.

"We've got the Bluegrass, we've got the horses," he said. "I'd like to stay in Kentucky. "Just depends on where the jobs are. Where I want life to take me."

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