The nation continues to struggle with historically low workforce participation rates and barriers to employment coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions invited Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts and leaders from other states to discuss workforce opportunities and barriers.
Opening remarks from the committee chairs focused on the current state of workforce in America. Committee Chair Patty Murray (D- Washington) said jobs have grown across the country, but discrepancies are still very evident and stressed that workforce development programs are critical to helping obtain high-quality employment. Sen. Murray said she has seen this in her home state of Washington. Also, she added that Congress has a bipartisan track record on workforce and it remains a high priority.
Ranking Member Richard Burr (R- North Carolina) said workforce is an important topic, especially in a period of severe economic uncertainty and record-high inflation. When the money in someone’s pocket is more critical than ever, America must look at innovative solutions, he said. He pointed to things like industry apprenticeships and the need for business, education, government, and others to come together to find outside-the-box solutions.
Each panelist discussed the issues facing their state and some of the programs and potential solutions their areas are using to tackle these issues.
During her testimony, Watts said, “the pandemic and economic recovery have accelerated preexisting trends and magnified our weak points. This is especially the case in Kentucky, where the data tells us that since 2000 more and more Kentuckians have not been participating in the workforce. In fact, fewer adults in Kentucky participate in the workforce than in almost any other state in the nation. Perhaps what is more concerning is that even once Kentucky fully restores its workforce to pre-pandemic levels – which is not a certainty – we will likely still be far behind the nation and surrounding states. Kentucky’s workforce challenges are exceptional, but they did not suddenly emerge in the age of COVID-19. Rather, they have been building and holding back our economy for at least two decades. There is no one singular cause of these challenges. Instead, the causes are many, and the solutions must be, as well.”
Watts said Kentucky is seeing “too many people without jobs and too many jobs without people” and detailed the programs the Kentucky Chamber and the Kentucky Chamber Foundation are undertaking to address the critical workforce shortages within the Commonwealth.
As the number one issue facing Kentucky businesses, the Kentucky Chamber has focused on innovative workforce solutions for many years. Watts detailed some of the employer-led initiatives run by the Chamber to develop, expand, and strengthen our workforce to support Kentucky’s economy including:
• The Workforce Recovery Program focusing on engaging the business community as part of the solution by reducing stigma and increasing second-chance employment opportunities across Kentucky and recruiting 28,000 fair chance job opportunities statewide.
• The Kentucky Transformational Employment Program (KTEP) providing a pathway for businesses and employers to help more Kentuckians reach long-term recovery while supporting second chance employment by ensuring protections for businesses from civil action regarding negligent hiring and hiring related to an employee’s substance use disorder through state statute.
• Proper Identification being provided for those coming out of incarceration to ensure Kentuckians only form of identification they have as the renter is not their mug shot.
• Bus to Business engaging over 210 schools and over 110 businesses across Kentucky, impacting over 42,000 students by providing the opportunity to tour companies, complete hands-on work-based learning activities, and speak directly with employers about career pathways available in their organizations.
• Talent Pipeline Management building talent solutions for Kentucky’s key industry sectors by engaging almost 300 employers and connecting more than 3,000 Kentuckians to jobs, training, or work-based learning opportunities.