EDITOR'S NOTE: For the past two decades, the shortage of skilled workers has steadily increased. Several things contribute to the deficit, including a stigma that the trades are for less-educated individuals, and the lack of available training opportunities throughout the Great Recession (2007-2010). The crunch is growing tighter as Baby Boomers retire, and there are not enough workers to replace them. This is the first of a three-part series exploring what Knox County is doing to ensure a pipeline of talent into the skilled trades. Part II publishes on Nov. 19.
MOUNT VERNON — Even with the Siemens Energy layoffs over the past few years, local jobs go unfilled, and there are not enough workers for jobs posted. Those are the results stemming from a workforce development survey completed by the Area Development Foundation in July.
Manufacturing (22%) and healthcare (12.5%) are the two biggest economic drivers in Knox County and account for one-third of the county's employment. Projections through 2026 show a need for 4,200 manufacturing workers and 2,400 healthcare workers.
In both industries, the need for replacement workers is nearly as great — and in some specific occupations, greater — as positions related to projected growth. Professions reaching crisis level include welders, mechanics, assemblers, electricians, millwrights, personal care aides, and nursing assistants.
“Universally, when I go out to see employers, they say I can't find enough people,” said Jeffry Harris, ADF president. “This has been a constant refrain since coming out of the recession.”
With county unemployment hovering around 3.9%, Harris said that historically, when employers mentioned the lack of workers, the response was, mainly, “sorry, don't know what to do with that.”
Now he has a better answer.
A newly created position through the Knox County Educational Service Center will help direct high school juniors and seniors toward available high-demand jobs that don't require a four-year college degree. The Career Navigator aims to bridge the gap between trained workers and unfilled jobs in the skilled trades.
“It's challenging to find workers in the current system,” Harris said. “We don't have a system in place to see and know where we are going to find 4,200 manufacturing and 2,400 healthcare workers.
"A hope and a prayer isn't going to cut it. The Career Navigator is our direct response.”
The Knox County Workforce Development Alliance (WorkDev), established in 2015, focused on career fairs, offering training on how to work with supervisors, and other routine activities. As Harris puts it, WorkDev meetings provided “nice monthly conversations.”
Between 2015 and 2018, programs offered through other organizations helped with engaging and training workers, but, Harris said, “those intervening steps did not cut the mustard.”
When Cathy Youtkas joined the ADF staff in 2018 as special projects coordinator, the ADF moved to take more of a leadership role within WorkDev.
“Cathy said, let's make this more rigorous, with minutes, attendees, and focused agendas. Let's bring in employers and educators, not just vendors,” Harris said.
School superintendents, state government representatives, and U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs became involved, all bringing new ideas to the table. One new idea stemmed from Timm Mackley, superintendent at the Knox County Educational Service Center, and involved a career pathways specialist in Guernsey County.
The goal of the career pathways specialist was to forge a link between students, high school counselors, and human resources personnel in the workforce.
Last year, an ADF Kenyon College intern researched Guernsey County's program as well as similar programs throughout the state. ADF staff met with WorkDev members, and then with Mackley and Jane Marlow, adult education director at the Knox Technical Center.
The result is the creation of a three-year pilot program for the Career Navigator position. The United Way of Knox County, Knox County Foundation, and Centerburg, Danville, East Knox, and Fredericktown schools are funding the program.
Bridging the gap
The ADF launched a search in mid-October to fill the Career Navigator position. The CN will work to create local career awareness for manufacturing and healthcare.
“It goes back to the work study, filling those needs in Knox County,” Youtkas said.
The CN will be in Centerburg, Danville, East Knox, and Fredericktown high schools.
“It is junior- and senior-oriented for non-traditional, non-college bound juniors and seniors. That middle 40% who are not interested in the military and who could have very well become lost,” Youtkas explained. “This career navigator aligns the students in those categories with employers locally, and now we have a very real product to present to employers.”
“We have needs here in Knox County. Let's figure out how we can parlay those local talents into those careers,” Harris added. “There's often an unspoken reluctance to consider the Knox County Career Center and trades in general. That reluctance may affect some students.”
The Mount Vernon School District has elected not to participate in the program.
“While we support the concept of the Career Navigator position and commend the ESC and the Knox Area Development Foundation's creation of such a position, we have been developing a student success plan with a career focus,” said Mount Vernon superintendent William Seder. “One of our goals is to establish a 'College and Career Passport' beginning in middle school and progressing through graduation. We believe it is important to meet individually with every student at periodic intervals to review their individual passports.
“While we have included many of the components of the career navigator position, we didn't feel that one person serving four county schools and Mount Vernon would have been able to meet all of our needs,” he continued. “It would be our hope that we could collaborate with this position to share best practices to serve our students now and into the future.”
Harris said that the Knox County Career Center is doing a fantastic job with freshmen and sophomores. As graduation approaches, however, the CN can reintroduce the idea of trades for students who previously passed on the career center but have not yet decided what they'll do after graduation. Guidance counselors previously filled this role, but it has fallen by the wayside with the focus on testing and state standards.
On the employer side, the CN will determine the availability of intern and externships, direct-hire opportunities, and age requirements for employment. Students will tour local worksites to experience firsthand modern working environments.
“Manufacturing is not the dirty shop floor from past days,” Harris said. “These are immaculate settings.”
“The Career Navigator will be working from employer specifics,” Youtkas said. “The employer tells the Career Navigator the needs and will invest in tours and education to increase student awareness.”
The CN position also links employers and the WorkDev alliance. As employers' needs become evident, such as the current need for students to be able to do math and work with the metric system, the CN will relay that information to WorkDev. In turn, the WorkDev team will relay the needs to school districts.
“We share the information, and it's up to the recipient to do something with it,” Harris said. “But at least now we have a voice.”