PRESTONSBURG — A blue chip panel of speakers — including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, state Sen. Ray Jones, former Secretary of Education Laura Emberton, and Big Sandy Community and Technical College President Dr. George Edwards — were at the college Thursday, to discuss the role of higher education in developing the region’s workforce.
One of the key messages to come out of the symposium was that the local economy needs training of all types, not just four-year degrees, to satisfy the needs of future industry.
Abramson said leaders must take the task of funding higher education on all levels seriously, in order to attract new industry to the region. He said his discussions with industrial leaders have emphasized the need for education and the community colleges have a pivotal role.
“What you really hear from them and what they ask me over and over again, is ‘Talk to me about whether there is a productive, skilled and educated workforce in Kentucky,’ so that we can say to our clients, ‘If you come and locate in Kentucky, there will be men and women who will not only provide what you need the day you open your new business, but also five and 10 and 15 years from now, will be there to keep your company competitive,’” Abramson said. “So if that’s the name of the game now, not incentives, but in creating a capital resource of men and women who have the education, the skills and the ability to be productive, and therefore attract business expansion or attract new business into the state, then community colleges now more than ever before are on the front line of delivering on that promise.”
But Abramson said it is not only up to leaders to fund education and create programs attractive to industry, but also for students to take advantage of educational opportunities.
“With education, you have options,” Abramson said. “Without education, you have narrowed your options in terms of what you can do, what you can provide, the kind of energy you can bring to your communities, and the kind of financing you can bring to your families.”
Jones noted the widespread layoffs in the coal industry underscore the need for education in the mountains. He talked about how, although his grandfather worked in the same mine for 42 years, the current generation cannot expect the same.
“Those days are over,” Jones said. “Nobody who goes to work in our number-one industry, the mining industry, is going to be able to work in the same mine for 42 years, for the same company, in a union mine, and retire with a pension and benefits. Those days are over.”
Jones said Kentucky needs to offer tomorrow’s workers new opportunities in new industries.
“We have seen 5,000 layoffs in our coal industry, but those are jobs where people have health insurance, they make substantial salaries, and you cannot replace those jobs at Walmart,” Jones said. “You cannot take someone $75,000 a year with benefits and a 401k plan, lay them off and expect them to be able to find a comparable job. Because, guess what? There’s thousands of people in that same position, looking for jobs here.
“We have to start right now. We’re behind the eight-ball. We’re going to have to start making sure, not only that our students coming out of high school have that opportunity to continue their education, but that people who have been laid off from the mining industry or a related industry, what are they going to do? … We have to try to create programs to get them back into the workforce, to give them new job skills, job skills that they can use in various businesses and industries. That is one of the key roles Big Sandy Community and Technical College can play in the future of Eastern Kentucky, and I think Dr. Edwards knows that.”