There's good news and bad news in Kentucky's employment landscape

Kentucky has one of the lowest rates in the country of people either working or looking for work.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Northern Kentucky has the best rate of workforce participation in the state.

Those are two big findings from a report released in September by the Kentucky Chamber Foundation.

The report, “20 Years in the Making: Kentucky’s Workforce Crisis,” drilled down on the state’s workforce participation rate, defined as the percentage of the people either employed or actively looking for a job.  

Kentucky’s rate ranks 48th out of the 50 states, the report finds. Only Mississippi and West Virginia are worse.

The metric is considered crucial to a growing economy, as businesses that want to expand or relocate here need workers.

The pandemic dealt a blow to the workforce, as tens of thousands of Kentuckians lost their jobs, and many have not returned to the workforce even as the economy recovers. But Kentucky’s problems began long before that, the report says.

“Kentucky’s workforce challenges are exceptional, but they did not suddenly emerge in the age of COVID-19,” the report says. “Rather, they have been building and holding back our economy for at least two decades. There is no one singular cause of these challenges. Instead, the causes are many, and the solutions must be, as well.”

But employment and rates of workforce participation were far from even throughout the Commonwealth. In fact, Boone County had the highest rate of workforce participation in the state – 70.1%. And Kenton County and Campbell County each had rates above 64.7%, ranking them among the highest in the state.

In general, urban areas had much higher rates than rural areas. Elliott County, in eastern Kentucky, had the lowest rate, 27.6%.

Expanding Northern Kentucky’s workforce has been a priority for many employers and organizations for years. A few years ago, the Northern Kentucky Chamber created GROW NKY, which brought together leaders from employers, economic development groups, social service organizations, and others to collaborate on expanding the workforce pipeline.

It focuses on five areas in a cradle-to-career model: kindergarten readiness, college and career readiness, adult career readiness and lifelong learning, talent retention and attraction, and employer policies and practices.

The Kentucky Chamber Foundation report recommends several solutions to begin addressing the workforce issue:
  • Pass legislation to ensure more Kentuckians graduate from high school with “soft” skills like critical thinking, teamwork, communication, and reliability.
  •  Create a scholarship program to encourage post-secondary training for in-demand jobs.
  •  Align education and workforce programming with employer needs.
  • Provide more funding to combat the opioid epidemic and innovative recovery efforts.
  • Increase funding for child care.
  •  Enact criminal justice reform measures.
Change will not happen overnight, the report says.

“Solutions must be bold, far-reaching, and multi-faceted,” it says. “Implementing these solutions will take time and patience, and require full and consistent dedication from policymakers and business leaders alike.”

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.