Workforce shortage a continued concern for Kentucky businesses

With low COVID-19 positivity rates and Kentucky businesses reopening to full capacity, employers across the Commonwealth are deeply concerned with workforce participation, according to Ashli Watts, President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Watts and Kentucky Chamber Chairman Winston Griffin testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Tourism, Small Business, and Information Technology in Frankfort on Thursday, highlighting the heightened demand for workers across Kentucky’s business community.

Watts said Kentucky’s workforce participation rate was among the lowest in the US, beating out only Mississippi and West Virginia for a national ranking of 48th.

“People who lost their jobs during the pandemic in Kentucky are not looking for work as much compared to the rest of the nation,” Watts said. 

But the workforce participation rankings were a problem even before the pandemic, according to Watts, who also stressed the importance of upscaling employees to better meet Kentucky’s workforce demand.

“Our education attainment levels trail the nation in a significant way,” Watts added. “Twenty-four percent of Kentuckians have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32 percent nationally. This is an important point when discussing education funding and the role in which education plays in getting people into the workforce.”

Many surrounding states have increased their baccalaureate attainment rates in recent years, while Kentucky’s has decreased over the past decade. 

“We definitely need to be moving in the opposite direction when it comes to education and getting our Kentuckians trained, employed, skilled, and ready for the workforce.”

Watts also pointed out thousands of job openings at Kentucky companies posted on the Kentucky Chamber’s “Who’s Hiring?” website.

“We realize this is a complex issue that we’ve never faced before,” Watts continued. “Child care has been extremely difficult to manage. The federal unemployment insurance benefits are part of the issue; we believe those should be phased-out. And there are people retiring earlier than maybe originally planned because of the pandemic. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving the workforce issue.”

Winston Griffin, who is also the president and chairman of Laurel Grocery Company, said the unemployment issue is “very real” at his company, headquartered in London, Kentucky.

“People are doing the math and figuring out they can make virtually the same amount of money staying home as opposed to coming back to work.”

Griffin said Laurel Grocery Company has a generous benefits package, which includes healthcare and 401k, but that those benefits are not quite as attractive to younger workers.

“Our problem and primary turnover is in the young employees that typically work in our warehouse,” Griffin said. “They generally care about the number that’s in the bottom right corner of their paycheck. They’re young and healthy and not worried as much about health insurance and 401k. So finding warehouse employees continues to be a challenge for us.”

Griffin also mentioned the Kentucky Chamber’s Talent Pipeline Management program, which continues to work with universities and employers to meet the employee demands of Kentucky businesses.

The full testimony from Watts and Griffin can be viewed here courtesy of KET, beginning at the 41-minute mark.

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Jacqueline Pitts
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