Among the many impacts of COVID-19 is the toll that pandemic-related closures have taken on the state’s labor market.
Even before the first confirmed case of coronavirus last winter, Kentucky struggled with a workforce participation rate of 59.6 percent, putting it 43rd in the nation, according to the Kentucky Center for Statistics. In July, after a springtime of shuttered businesses and schools, the commonwealth dropped to 50th in the nation with a 52.5 percent participation rate. By November, the state had 63,600 fewer people employed than in February.
The numbers have rebounded some, but Kentucky still has the lowest workforce participation rate of any of surrounding state except West Virginia.
“Close to 250,000 people have stopped working in Kentucky and stopped looking for jobs,” says Beth Davisson, vice president of workforce for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
To make matters worse, Davisson says Kentucky also ranks among the top five states for most unemployment insurance claims, and for vulnerable jobs – that is, positions that may no longer be needed due to technological changes.
Challenges Facing Women and Working Mothers
But the job losses of the past year are not affecting all Kentuckians evenly. Sectors that predominately employ women, such as leisure and hospitality, have been harder hit that those sectors that employ more men, like transportation and logistics.
“What that means in Kentucky is that 55 percent of the unemployment claims are women,” says Davisson. “We’ve not seen that type of number ever – this is unprecedented.”
Women aren’t just being driven from the workforce because of job losses. Davisson says more than 100,000 Kentucky women left the workforce to tend children who are at home because of school and day care center closures.
Winchester physical therapist Sarah Mattingly is one of those women. Her husband travels during the week for his work, which left Mattingly to juggle her job from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then care for her three young children when she gets home.
“Nobody was getting what they needed because I was spread way, way too thin,” says Mattingly. “It just was exhausting.”
After months of trying to balance her work and family responsibilities with the help of friends and relatives, Mattingly says she made the tough decision to leave a job she loves to become a “full-time, home-schooling mama.” She says having a husband with good-paying work made it easier for her leave her employment, but she realizes many women aren’t so fortunate.
Josie Raymond found herself in a similar situation. The Democratic state representative from Jefferson County stepped away from her full-time job to care for her three children. She says many women who decide to leave their outside work struggle with losing a valuable part of their identities.
While companies have stepped up to provide their employees with child care options and greater flexibility in work hours, Raymond says state government must also address structural issues that make life difficult for working mothers, especially during the pandemic.
“Any recovery has to prioritize moms,” says Raymond. “We don’t get the vaccine on a Monday, send our kids to school on a Tuesday, and get all these tens of thousands of moms in Kentucky back to work on a Wednesday. The recovery is not that simple.”
To help women in the workforce, Raymond says lawmakers need to consider paid family leave, expanding access to child care and pre-kindergarten options. She says the pandemic has shown how important women are to their families and to the state’s economy.
The View from the General Assembly
Along with a history of low workforce participation, Kentucky has also been long plagued by a lack of quality child care that’s affordable and accessible. Davisson says about half of the state’s population lives in a child care desert, which means even if people want to work, they may not be able to because they have no viable day care options for their children.
To complicate the problem, COVID-related restrictions have caused many smaller child care providers to close. Davisson says that puts another limit on the state’s workforce.
“The only way to rebuild our economy is through getting our workers back, and we won’t do that without the available child care that we need,” says Davisson. “So the state and federal government have got to come up with some resources and some changes to make that happen.”
State Rep. Russell Webber (R-Shepherdsville) says lawmakers are concerned about pandemic-related closures of schools and child care centers. The chair of the Kentucky House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee says those closures have had a range of negative impacts on parents and children.
“We’ve had testimony in committee, and I’ve heard legislators who are also educators, say... upward of one-third of students don’t participate in the [virtual] classes that they offer,” says Webber. “Schools need to be open – they need to be open for the mental health of the students. That’s important.”
Parents who normally would go to work while their children are at school now must either find child care alternatives – if available – reschedule or reduce their on-the-job hours, or completely leave the workforce to look after to their children. That’s another reason why Webber says reopening public schools is vital to the state’s economic recovery. In the first week of the General Assembly session, lawmakers passed a bill to expedite the reopening of schools and businesses that follow pandemic safety protocols set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the coming weeks of the session, Webber says lawmakers will also consider legislation to address the state’s beleaguered unemployment insurance system, which has been overwhelmed by claims from record numbers of Kentuckians seeking relief. Many of those requesting benefits have waited weeks or even months to have their claims processed due to issues of understaffing and outdated technology in the unemployment insurance office.
“How do we identify the problems we’ve had and how do we come up with solutions to help that system,” says Webber, “so that if we’re hit again in the next few years with another situation of massive unemployment, how do we sustain that system and move forward, and not find ourselves back the same predicament again?”
Webber says resolving issues in the unemployment office may require discussion beyond the current session. But he says lawmakers should consider immediate relief to small businesses who will face escalating unemployment tax rates.
“If we want these folks to begin to rehire and bring back Kentuckians and expand and create new jobs, we going to have to take a look at how we can best help the folks that create jobs out there,” says Webber.
Moving More Students into Postsecondary Education Options
Beyond gender challenges and dearth of child care options, Kentucky’s workforce also lacks the skill sets many employers demand today.
“Even before the pandemic hit, one of the biggest problems facing Kentucky was an undertrained workforce,” says John Lyons, interim executive director of the Kentucky Workforce Innovation Board. Now, nearly a year into the pandemic, he says, “It’s finding ways to be able to scale up and educate up our workforce so they are prepared and equipped for the jobs that are out there.”
And jobs are available, even as the pandemic moves into its second year. Davisson says the Chamber of Commerce website currently lists 92,000 job openings in the commonwealth.
But state officials say that it is hard to build a workforce of highly skilled workers when only about half of Kentucky high school graduates go on to pursue some form of higher education, whether that’s a two- or four-year college degree, or career or technical training that results in a skilled trade or professional certification. Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President and CEO Aaron Thompson says the state cannot build a workforce of the future without more students advancing their studies beyond high school.
“The most direct, independent variable to unemployment is that people don’t have a higher education certificate or degree of some sort,” says Thompson. “If you look at those that are thriving in the workforce whether it was the great recession of 2009 or whether it was because of COVID, you’ll find out those are the people that will have a higher education background.”
CPE has set an ambitious goal of getting 60 percent of Kentucky’s working-age adults to earn a degree or credential by the year 2030. Thompson says hitting that mark will build the robust economy that state officials envision. Thompson says Kentucky needs to focus on credentials that can be layered on other credentials, that are transferable to other jobs, and that lead to livable wages.
Preparing students for higher education can’t just start in high school, though. Thompson says students as young as kindergarten and elementary school should be guided on a path to postsecondary education and career readiness.
CPE along with the state Department of Education, the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, and the Beshear Administration have partnered to create a Commonwealth Education Continuum to better prepare students for future careers as they move through their elementary and secondary school years.
Beyond academic work, Thompson says children also need training on critical thinking, problem solving, time management, working with people from diverse backgrounds, and other so-called “soft skills” that are valuable to employers today.
Public-Private Partnership Boosts Higher Education in Louisville
To bring higher educational achievement to a local level, a public-private partnership called 55,000 Degrees sought to increase the number of Louisvillians with a college degree. The partnership’s name reflects an ambitious goal: civic leaders are encouraging 55,000 people to complete an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree.
The decade-long effort concluded in December with the addition of nearly 40,000 degrees. The percentage of Louisvillians with a degree went from about 38 percent in 2008 to just over 46 percent in 2019.
“Our local postsecondary institutions in Louisville are now producing 2,500 more degrees annually than when we started 10 years ago, says Mary Gwen Wheeler, Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees. “But we’ve been facing some headwinds.”
Those challenges include an overall decline in college enrollments, which Wheeler attributes to higher tuitions and other costs to attend college. With reduced state funding since the 2008 recession, colleges and universities have made up the difference by increasing what they charge their students.
To make sure that Louisville youth aren’t priced out of a chance to start college, Wheeler says the 55,000 Degrees initiative has morphed into an effort to guarantee two years of tuition-free postsecondary education for every Jefferson County Public Schools graduate. Wheeler says Evolve502 has raised enough money so far to cover the initial two years of college tuition for every current high school student in the county.
“Those who are going to most likely take advantage of it are those who need it the most and who are choosing not to go to college right now because they think it is too expensive,” says Wheeler.
Any student will be eligible regardless of their socio-economic status or grade point average, but Wheeler says the program only covers the fees for students who attend a Kentucky community or technical college or Simmons College, a historically Black college in Louisville.
Evolve502 has also worked during the pandemic to help students and families that lack internet access, computer equipment, or a quiet home environment needed for virtual instruction. Wheeler says they collaborated with community organizations to create safe places for students to continue their studies while schools have been closed.
Businesses and Corporations Offer More Workplace Flexibility
The need for skilled workers has motivated a range of corporate partners to join these and other workforce development initiatives around the state.
With some 6,600 employees its Louisville headquarters and manufacturing facility, GE Appliances is one of the largest employers in the commonwealth according to Allison Martin, senior director for corporate citizenship and digital communications for the company. She says GE Appliances has invested $50 million in local schools, colleges, and universities over the last 10 years.
“One of the areas we’ve been focused on for a very long time is equity… How do we provide equitable opportunities for all students, for all young people in Jefferson County?” says Martin. “We know that diversity makes us a better business, it makes us a more creative business, it helps us become closer to our consumers, but it also provides opportunities that improve this community beyond measure.”
GE Appliances partners on a special academy within Louisville’s Doss High School that prepares students for high-tech manufacturing jobs.
“Since... launching those career pathways at Doss, we have seen the college and career-readiness score at Doss go from about 20 percent to about 57 – 60 percent,” says Martin. “That is a huge change. We know that we can we translate into employment opportunities at GE Appliances.”
Another initiative that gives Doss High School seniors as well as adults valuable manufacturing experience is GEA2DAY, in which people work the assembly line at GE Appliances on Mondays and Fridays. Martin says those workers get pay and benefits plus a $6,000 credit for college tuition. She says the flexibility that a two-day-a-week schedule provides has been especially popular among mothers looking to reenter the workforce.
“One of the things… that we’ve been shown during COVID is as a manufacturing employer specifically, how do we inject flexibility into a career that has typically been inflexible,” says Martin.
That includes more flexible working hours during the pandemic for workers with childcare or other family responsibilities. To fill those vacancies, Martin says salaried employees from the company’s headquarters step in to work the assembly line.