Easley said encouragement from family and co-workers, who were also working toward a degree, kept him dedicated.
In May, Easley and four other employees at Swift & Staley Mechanical Contractors graduated from the Accessible College Education program offered by West Kentucky Community & Technical College.
“I thought another safety net wouldn’t hurt and having an education would help that,” Easley said.
“You get up in your 40s, later 40s, you’re just not as desirable (to hire). You have to pull another rabbit out of the hat.”
After three years of weekly classes, the five full-time workers earned associate’s degrees in industrial maintenance technology and Chemical Operator certificates. The group also became part of a growing trend among communities looking to grow business.
As popular as tax incentives once were as recruitment tools to lure big business and employers, now workforce education, training and development opportunities are seen as the bait to reel in jobs.
An example: Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson traveled to New York in May to speak to 27 consultants who advise firms looking to relocate and move jobs.
More than anything, the consultants wanted to know about a city’s or region’s workforce, education and training possibilities, Abramson said.
“They said incentives are pretty much the same wherever you go,” Abramson said in a meeting with the Sun’s editorial board.
“We want to know about skilled, educated, productive employees. Tell us about your education system that will guarantee our clients that five years from now, 10 years from now, you’re going to be able to produce the men and women that can keep us competitive.”
The ACE program at WKCTC was designed for workers such as Easley who can also take advantage of an employer’s education stipends and reimbursements, said Tammy Owen, associate vice president of academic affairs at WKCTC.
Swift & Staley paid upfront for the tuition and book fees for the workers, said Scott Smith, Swift & Staley program manager.
“We feel like the more educated you are, the better employee you are,” Smith said. He said the degrees will help workers whether they stay with the company or move on. “That was one of the things we said from the start. If every one of them leaves for another job, we’re still happy,” Smith said.
Programs established years ago
Even if the emphasis on workforce education and training has become stronger recently, the programs at local colleges and universities are not new.
The ACE program at WKCTC launched six years ago, Owen said.
Murray State University has offered its Integrated Studies program for years, and four years ago added new program features, said Catherine Sivills, assistant vice president for university communications.
The program rolls in previously completed college credits, and has flexible degree requirements. It fits well for students in established careers who do not need a specific academic credential for a new career, Sivills said.
Sivills said the department sees about 300 students enroll each year, making it one of the larger programs at the university.
Mid-Continent University in Mayfield has offered its Advantage Program since 1999, according to Bill Bartleman, director of community relations. He said about 400 students from Paducah are working toward some kind of degree through MCU with 75 earning a master’s degree in May in human resources.
The Advantage Program is a calling card of sorts for the university that prides itself on coming forward for students rather than investing in large campuses and expecting students to come to them.
Bartleman said professors in the Advantage Program will drive up to four and five hours to teach classes in churches, hotels and any other public meeting space. The average age of an MCU student is 37, he said.
Carol Conway, a 52-year-old senior branch office administrator at Edward Jones in Paducah, earned a bachelor’s degree in business management in May through the Advantage Program. The 12-year Edward Jones employee earned an associate’s degree from Paducah Community College in the 1980s and had always wanted to finish a bachelor’s degree.
Conway said she enjoyed the Advantage Program feature that had her complete one class at a time. “They worked to fit my schedule,” Conway said. “It was just what I needed.”
If communities develop around strong, trainable workforces in the future, the local college programs could be just what the local economy needs, too.
Call Adam Shull, Journal editor, at 270-575-8653 or follow @adamshull on Twitter.