By Derek Redelman, Vice President, Research & Policy, USA Funds
Engage with any chamber of commerce in the country these days, and you’re certain to hear its members’ concerns about the workforce.
In my previous role, heading up education and workforce issues for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, no issue was more persistently at the top of our agenda. Sure, a lot of our members would identify some other issue as their highest concern — whether it was health care, a range of regulatory issues, labor rules, taxes or something else. But on the whole, across any state or regional business community, no issue was more persistent than their concerns about education and the workforce.
Moreover, those concerns have real consequences — real numbers that affect bottom lines, employment and, ultimately, the economy as a whole.
Just last year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were nearly 6 million unfilled jobs in our country. And numbers like that seem to persist, to a significant degree, regardless of overall economic conditions. During the height of our recent “Great Recession” — when unemployment rates in some states, like USA Funds®’ home state of Indiana, were flirting with double-digit numbers — 40 percent of the employers in the state reported they could not find qualified workers to fill vacant positions.
More recently, as unemployment rates declined, the Indiana Chamber reported that percentage had increased to 45 percent.
So it should be little surprise that those representing businesses, including chambers of commerce, have taken such a keen interest in education and workforce issues. At the national level, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has been a leader on such issues, from preschool to academic standards to workforce issues and more. The Manufacturing Institute, a branch of the National Association of Manufacturers; the Business Roundtable; and the Business-Higher Education Forum are among other organizations focusing on education and the workforce.
At statehouses across the country, chambers of commerce often are the most consistent, and sometimes the loudest and most effective, advocates of education reform and improved higher education and workforce systems. Moreover, their political action arms often are responsible for electing the legislators who drive these reforms. And in many states, chamber foundations add to these efforts with research and other special initiatives.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce ranks among the most active and effective chambers in its work on education issues.
So it is with great anticipation that USA Funds is providing a grant to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to help establish a Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. Through that new center, the Chamber will engage the business community to help advance several initiatives for addressing the needs of employers. Among those efforts are:
- Creation of additional business collaboratives, in concert with the Talent Pipeline Management initiative that USA Funds is supporting with the U.S. Chamber.
- Assistance to employers who serve on state and local workforce boards or participate in other workforce or educational leadership roles.
- Increased focus on data, including the supply/demand tools that USA Funds has helped to initiate through our college value-focused work.
- Engagement of government and education leaders to help ensure better communication and cooperation between suppliers of talent and those who hire their trainees and graduates.
Announcing our partnership
On Jan. 25 I had the pleasure of attending and speaking to the Kentucky Chamber’s 2nd Annual Workforce Summit in Lexington. The capacity audience included an impressive group of workforce training and education providers, small-to-large employers, and key government leaders. Presentations and discussions focused on:
- Workforce trends.
- Employer needs.
- Improving opportunities for military veterans.
- Employer engagement.
- Workplace learning and apprenticeships.
- Improved use of workforce data.
USA Funds announced our commitment to the Chamber’s efforts at the event’s lunch, which also included the introduction of Beth Davisson as executive director of the new Kentucky Chamber Workforce Center. The Chamber recently hired Beth from a large pool of candidates, and she brings a terrific set of skills to this work. She previously served in both workforce and human resource leadership roles, and she has been recognized as a “Top Business Leader Under 40” and among the “Top 20 People to Know in Human Resources.”
Developed in partnership with Anna Gatlin Schilling, USA Funds’ vice president for National Engagement and Strategic Communications, our investment in Kentucky also represents a new approach to investments in state leadership. Whereas previous state engagements have provided direct support to governors’ offices, this grant extends that work to a nongovernmental organization with direct connections to and support of a key education constituency: the state’s employers.
Importantly, however, the demonstrated partnership already developed between the Kentucky Chamber and the state’s new governor, Matt Bevin, played an important role in the decision to support these efforts.
As I told the attendees at lunch on Jan. 25, it’s quite impolitic in the middle of basketball season for a Hoosier native to speak so well of our neighbors to the south. But it is with great pleasure — and also high expectations — that USA Funds initiates this partnership with our neighbors in Kentucky.