State leaders, industry experts discuss key issues and solutions to address Kentucky’s current and future workforce needs

As Kentucky employers look to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, state, national and industry leaders discussed critical issues facing the Commonwealth, including workforce recovery, diversity and inclusion, and criminal justice and recovery reforms at the Kentucky Chamber’s Annual Workforce Summit.

Workforce Recovery Post-COVID

Kentucky Chamber Vice President of Workforce Development Beth Davisson talked about Kentucky’s workforce and the importance of employers and state leaders thinking for the future to fill over 64,000 jobs still open due to the pandemic.

“The most important thing Kentucky can do is underscore education,” said Davisson when discussing unemployment data over the past year and employment gaps.

“The big question around employment is can we ensure an equitable recovery for workforce after the coronavirus pandemic,” said McKinsey & Company Expert Dr. Ryan Luby said. He shared staggering data on unemployment rates as a result of COVID-19 for groups including women, those without a high school or college degree, and Kentuckians of color.

In addition, a study by KY STATS found that 23% of Kentuckians who received unemployment payments at the beginning of the pandemic were still receiving payments in September. The report also found that over 180,000 women said their reason for not returning to work was related to childcare. 

In the post-COVID workplace, workforce trends are drastically changing. For instance, the number of people looking for jobs that allow them to work from home has risen, and employers have seen a large reduction in employees taking sick days while working from home. Experts urged employers to listen to the trends and adapt business practices to future workforce and economic trends.

Global futurist Jack Uldrich urged employers and state leaders to expect the unexpected, saying the coronavirus pandemic has unexpectedly changed the future economy and workforce. Uldrich said education must also adapt, stating 65% of students starting elementary school today will eventually work in jobs that do not exist yet, pointing to industries like e-commerce, robotics, and satellite technology have grown exponentially over the past year.

The Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center has implemented the Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) system to address Kentucky’s workforce needs. TPM System Director LaKisha  Miller shared the ways their team has engaged over 210 employers, connected 1,322 Kentuckians to jobs, and helped connect 175 schools to work-based learning opportunities across the Commonwealth. Miller detailed the key role TPM has played in transforming the future workforce for many critical industry sectors to Kentucky’s economy in partnership with employers, education systems, and government entities.

Criminal Justice, Recovery, and Workforce Development

Many panels discussed successful examples of businesses filling their workforce needs while helping Kentuckians coming out of incarceration find steady employment.

A talent pipeline has been formed between Blackburn Correctional Complex and Spy Coast Farms to train inmates to work with horses while incarcerated, providing hands-on job experience for when they reenter the workforce. Everett Tucker, a Kentuckian who was previously incarcerated at Blackburn Correctional Facility and is now employed at Spy Coast Farms, shared the importance of his job in his reentry and his gratitude for his second chance.

A Lexington restaurant owner, Rob Perez, shared his experiences of hiring Kentuckians in recovery and who were previously incarcerated. Perez says relational leadership, not transactional leadership, has allowed DV8 Kitchen and Bakery to have 15% higher sales, 60% higher turnover, and 40% better tenure than other restaurants. He said it is more important to treat people fairly than to treat people equally.

A panel focused on criminal justice and recovery reforms discussed initiatives and legislative efforts to help those in recovery and reentering the workforce. The Kentucky Department of Corrections has developed the Division of Reentry Services, which helps those in incarceration enhance their educational needs and works with businesses to become second-chance employers.

Kentucky Department of Corrections Division of Reentry Services Director Kristin Porter discussed a new program that provides inmates with a valid ID upon release from incarceration, which is critical to helping Kentuckians be work ready when they get out of prison. She thanked the Kentucky Chamber for supporting the program and seeing the value of breaking down barriers to employment for Kentuckians coming out of incarceration.  Porter stated that initiatives like these have helped the recidivism rate drop by 5% over the past years to 35%.

Kentucky League of Cities Executive Director and CEO JD Chaney talked about the most recent legislation that is going through the legislative process that would establish Recovery Ready Communities to help support Kentuckians struggling with substance use disorder at the local level.

Amanda Hall of the ACLU talked about House Bill 25, which would allow felons to be eligible for KEES funding, House Bill 126, which would raise the felony theft threshold from $500 to $1000, and Senate Bill 36, a juvenile justice bill that would give judges discretion to advocate for Kentucky’s youth.

Pat Fogarty of Addiction Recovery Centers encouraged employers that are interested in fair chance hiring to visit Fogarty said the initiatives’ website is a one-stop-shop for those looking to transform the way Kentucky addresses criminal justice and substance use disorder.

As Davisson called on businesses to become second- chance employers, she highlighted the Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center’s “Who’s Hiring in Kentucky” campaign that identifies Kentucky employers that have jobs open and are willing to hire Kentuckians in recovery or coming out of incarceration.

Diversity and Inclusion

Dr. Tim Findley, director of diversity and inclusion for TARC, shares the definitions of diversity, inclusion, intercultural communication, and racism and discusses how the different concepts are intertwined in society and businesses. Findley says critical issues for most employers include the lack of diversity in organizations’ leadership and C-suite, organizations’ employees not representing the diverse customers they serve, and organizations’ limited intentionality for diversity and inclusion.

When asked where organizations should start their efforts to address diversity and inclusion, Findley says to make sure the organization’s plans and intentions start from the top and begin with the end and mind.

Kathy Sheppard-Jones, executive director of the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, spoke on inclusion in the workplace relating to disabilities. Statistics show that one-third of Kentuckians have a disability, and when there is a workforce shortage, employers must prepare to hire and recruit with inclusion in mind.

Detailing the key areas of an inclusive organization, Jones says employers must actively promote the role of universal design and accommodation in employment, use influence and scale to accelerate societal change globally, and advance equality and inclusion in employment. To learn more about becoming an inclusive workplace, she encouraged employers to visit

A panel of Kentucky Chamber Task Force on Racial Inequality members talked about the importance of businesses having diverse talent and the ways businesses can make meaningful change to address racial inequality in Kentucky. Click here to read the recently report.

On having conversations on racial inequality, Ray Daniels of Equity Solutions Group said, “It all starts with talking about the issue in an open and safe environment. And if you aren’t comfortable with talking, just listen.”

Panelists agreed that racial inequity begins with a commitment to equitable education starting at the preschool level. That commitment continues with businesses operating with intentionality and recruiting and retaining employees with diversity and inclusion in mind.

“This is just the beginning of our work,” said Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts. “I like to think of this report as our road map. We are going to continue to pull together leaders from across the state to help us with this work.”

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Jacqueline Pitts
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