The Kentucky Labor Cabinet is developing an apprenticeship program to train more skilled workers to meet the state's workforce needs. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Kentucky Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey and Commissioner Ervin Dimeny about apprenticeships and skilled workers. They also discuss a program offering job training for inmates, workplace safety and more.
Ramsey and Dimeny met with local business and government leaders in Murray on Friday. Ramsey said in touring and meeting businesses across the state during Bevin's administration, "there's never been this kind of excitement, particularly when it comes to the business community."
The business community often talks about the need for skilled workers. Ramsey said these workers are traditionally defined as electricians, plumbers, HVAC and construction workers. But, he said, the growing list of 'over a thousand 'apprenticeable' concepts, ideas and notions' includes other skilled jobs like nurses, information technology and even radio DJs.
Teachers have expressed concern that the new pension bill could drive current and prospective teachers away from Kentucky, which could presumably affect labor and workforce in the state. Ramsey said his office is addressing this concern is through developing the apprenticeship concept.
Ramsey said the world is changing and state government has to look at things differently. Thus, he said the Labor Cabinet is working with the Personnel Cabinet and the Health and Family Services Cabinet to develop the apprenticeship program. The latter Cabinet involves apprenticeship training for social workers.
Dimeny said the apprenticeship program offers a partnership. "Skills development really happens not in an isolated classroom setting, but through business leadership." He said the industry sector becomes the leading entity of skills development and education complements that.
The apprenticeship model provides a means of income and advances skill-sets, Dimeny said. It's an effort to combine knowledge acquisition with knowledge application. "The more we can integrate business and education the more successful the outcome is," he said.
To develop a skilled workforce, one must first have skilled educators. Ramsey said he recently visited England to learn from their apprenticeship program. He said employers in the commonwealth have said that it takes between one-year and a year-and-a-half to get a 'return on their investment.' In England, he said, apprenticeships are coinciding with educational elements. "I think we as a country have to look at things a little bit differently," he said.
Dimeny said a way to address the education workforce is to utilize aging employees with institutionalized knowledge. These employees, within the companies, can teach the hands-on application aspect, he said. "The more we can integrate the model and bring the business partner into an active role, the more the solution will be visible and available."
The Labor Cabinet's role is to facilitate and connect the parties involved in this discussion, he said: the student, the apprentice, the business, the educators, the policymakers and the government.
Justice to Journeyman
The future of a pilot program designed to help inmates develop job skills is "unlimited," Ramsey said. He said the 'Justice to Journeyman' program is intended to reduce recidivism and help address the growing need for skilled workers. He said the program will be expanded. He said last year, more than 16,000 people came home from prison. "These people need to be given a second chance," he said, and wants Kentucky to be known as a 'second-chance state.' One of the pilot efforts is underway in Mayfield.
Kentucky recently became a 'right-to-work' state, a policy that weakens labor unions by allowing workers to stop paying union dues or fees once current contracts expire. Supporters say it makes the state more competitive and ideal for businesses.
Ramsey said 2015 was at the time the highest year of new business in Kentucky, bringing in $5.1 billion. In 2017, that number reached $9.1 billion. Bevin signed the right-to-work legislation in early 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry was recently in west Kentucky where he discussed reducing regulations to benefit business growth. The reduction of regulations could pose a risk to workplace safety. In March, Governor Matt Bevin signed a bill abolishing the Kentucky Occupational Safety and Health Board and gave the Labor Cabinet secretary the board's authority. The secretary was also given authority "to suspend or delay administrative regulations based on the actions of the federal government relating to corresponding federal regulation."
Ramsey said when changes are made at the federal level, he didn't have the ability to make that quick-change. "When the feds act, we can react," he said. "One of the reasons that we wanted to do that was to ensure that Kentucky business is not hampered in the competition world."
Safety + Health Magazine reported a concern expressed by American Industrial Hygiene Association director of governmental affairs Mark Ames, who said: "Critical worker safety issues must be decided by a balanced panel of experts, not by a single political appointee.”
Responding to the concern that worker safety might be compromised by the removal of this board, Ramsey said: "emphatically not." He said in 2015, he fielded calls from around the state that concerned that the "education team" was coming through one entrance and the "compliance team" was coming in the other. He said he wanted to "get rid of that myth."
He also said he made an effort to 'educate, educate, educate' before issuing a citation. Ramsey said in 1996, 8.4% of people going to work in Kentucky were injured on the job. In 2015, he said, that number has come down to 3.7% and in 2016, 3.4%. He said 2017 numbers aren't out yet but said the number of fatalities dropped from 92 in 2016 to 74 in 2017.
"Our team is doing an incredible job of getting out and educating people," he said. And offered to give businesses free safety education if they contact the cabinet. He said his office has also saved businesses more than $12.5 million in penalties. "So if someone can say that we're creating an unsafe environment, I don't know where they're talking about. Because I can say the Commonwealth has never been as safe as it is now."
He said his office won't stop until Kentucky's workplace injury rate is lower than the national average of 2.9%.
Ramsey stressed that Kentucky is much safer today than it was when he first took the position in 2015.
Sexual Harassment Complaint Records
Last month, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the Kentucky Labor Cabinet had refused to release the name of an employee accused of sexual harassment in 2016. In the report, the Cabinet stated that the employee's privacy outweighed the public interest. Attorney General Andy Beshear's office then issued a decision that the cabinet violated the Open Records Act by withholding the name even if the allegation wasn't substantiated. "The public's interest in monitoring agency action outweighed the privacy interest of the employee who was exonerated of misconduct," Beshear's ruling states. KYCIR has been investigating sexual harassment complaints in state government.
When asked if the public has a right to know if an agency disciplined or exonerated an employee, Secretary Ramsey told WKMS, "Yes they do, but we cannot of follow the laws of what the attorney general says. I mean, we can't because in some cases they've requested information where people that were allegedly or accused of that have been exonerated. So why would we turn that over to further embarrass someone that was accused of something, not found guilty of it?"
The Courier Journal reported in early March the Kentucky Labor Cabinet is being sued by two former employees who claimed they were fired for reporting that former cabinet employee Winston Bennett (who was fired last fall) was sexually harassing female employees.
What's Next for the Labor Cabinet?
Ramsey encouraged companies to attend the 34th Annual Governor’s Safety and Health Conference and Exposition, May 8 - 11 in Bowling Green. Looking further ahead, the second Kentucky Apprenticeship Summit is September 10 - 12.