Training the next generation of skilled workers in South Central Kentucky

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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -- The Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are roughly 6,000 open jobs in and around Warren County, but as some employers will tell you, there aren't enough skilled workers ready to jump into them.

"We've seen a decline in new skilled workforce come into our industry," says Vice President of Stewart Richey, Roddy Grimes.

As local employers fear the interest in skilled-labor is dropping, some area students are preparing to solve that problem.

Whether it's in construction, behind a welder's mask, or in front of a electric panel, the Warren County Area Technical Center (WCATC) is reminding high school students a career in these fields can be rewarding.

"What I'm noticing is students who are leaving at 18 years old, if we don't create a seamless transition into the workforce or into a college of some sort, what we're seeing is, these kids just drop off the map," says Dr. Eric Keeling of WCATC.

Often viewed as an alternative to tradtional post-secondary education, these "trades" are actually yielding high-paying results.

"What you're seeing is that our business and industry partners are recognizing that and they're actually stepping up and saying hey we want your students. We want to hire your students, and we'll actually pay good money for your students," says Dr. Keeling. "We're not trying to get them a job. We can get them a job anywhere. The steps that we're taking is to make sure we're getting these students a career."

Students like Austin Massey and Jacob Hadden are 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Neither have a four-year college degree, but as they're learning, businesses are paying $3-5 more an hour to those with an associate's degree, and they're actually helping these new workers pay for it.

"I'm making 25.48 an hour," says Massey. "Plus my school's paid for and I'm learning on the job as it's being taught to me in the classroom."

"I'm now a welder at Stupp Bridge," explains Hadden, "I'm pretty much guaranteed a job when I graduate. I'm about to actually start an engineering internship for them. I'm really blessed to have these opportunities."

Jacob Hadden is getting a degree in engineering from Western Kentucky University, while his employer, Stupp Bridge, is making sure he doesn't pay a dime, so he can continue his career within the company.

"What we try to get people to understand in here is that we don't put limits on anybody," says Dr. Keeling, "We don't put labels on anybody. We push them to excel. You don't know what your limits are until you're challenged, so we try to make sure we challenge students on a daily basis."

WCATC often invites local industries explain to students what they're looking for in employees.

Keith Gameson is the General Manager at Magna in Bowling Green.

"From an industry perspective, we have to start filling the spots that are open," he explains. "We need to let our younger people, our younger generations, know what is available out there and the type of lifestyle that they can provide for themselves in the future."

"As our workforce ages, and they retire out, where is the new workforce going to come from?" asks Roddy Grimes.

Employers are still looking for that answer, and hope to inspire a new generation to learn these trades.

Many employers in the area are willing to pay good money, and offer plenty of room for advancement. The proof, perhaps, is in the executives themselves.

"I was not cut out to be in a four-year program," says Roddy Grimes.

Before he was V.P., Grimes started from a much more humble beginning.

"I went to the local vocational school once I graduated high school. I spent two years there as a heating and air technician," he says. "If you know what you want to do, and you do it very well, then you're going to be successful."

"I, myself, started as a tool and dye maker as an apprentice," explains Keith Gameson, "and I've now gone into a position as a general manager of a 2,000-person facility."

"The opportunity that exists out there for these young people," Gameson goes on, "is the opportunity to get a four year apprenticeship program that brings them out the other side, making a very good wage, zero student debt, and it's provided a foundation for a very solid future."

Outside of perfecting a trade, when it comes to the kind of workers these employers are hoping to hire, there are a couple of things to watch out for according to Roddy Grimes.

"Number one is to just understand what it is you want to do," he says.

The other two things are simple:

"It's to have a good attitude and have the aptitude to be able to learn that skilled-trade profession."

Many employers allow applicants to apply within their businesses. You can also try giving them a call.

The Warren County ATC aims to help students understand the work ethic they will need to be successful.

"Always strive to better yourself every day," says Jacob Hadden. "Don't wake up with just an average mindset and be okay with it. You always have to keep working. The opportunities are out there in this field, it will take you as far as you let it take you."

"When you know that you're having that kind of impact on not only student's lives, but the community as a whole, to me, that's the much more rewarding thing you can do," says Dr. Keeling.

The Warren County ATC allows students from Warren County, Edmonson County, and Bowling Green Independent Schools to take part. High school students can can ask their administrators how to join the program.

The Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce has also played a part in training the next generation of workers, starting programs like "SCK Launch," and working closely with the Workforce Development Board.

Employers, like Stewart Richey, will often be hands-on in training, whether on-site, or in a trade school, offering to pay up to full-tuition, should the new workers pass their certifications.

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