“The leadership problem is that an increasing number of people in the world are miserable, hopeless, suffering and becoming dangerously unhappy because they don’t have an almighty good job – and in most cases, no hope of getting one.” Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs Wars (2011) and CEO for Gallup
Hope is the catalyst for success in life. Hope is an essential element for a person to believe that they can achieve and that they will be rewarded for their efforts. Loss of hope is devastating at all ages. Gallup discovered in its “whole” world polling in 2010 that children become school dropouts “when they lose hope to graduate.” These students are not excited about their future and their prospects for a good job. Clifton writes, “Gallup has discovered that having a good job is now the great global dream; it’s the number one social value for everyone. This is one of our most powerful findings ever.”
We see the hopelessness by some in our Appalachian Kentucky region that is plagued by poverty rates three times the national average and high unemployment rates. This hopelessness is scientifically recognized in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index in which the 5th Congressional District ranked last in overall sense of Well-Being, Life Evaluation, and Emotional Health. In the midst of these challenges, a large number of energized citizens with a can-do spirit have chosen to focus on the abundance of talent and potential human capital in the region in order to positively change the narrative.
We in Appalachian Kentucky understand that education is the key to improving the quality of life here. However, it is necessary to have the quality jobs for the educated citizenry. The Appalachian citizenry must create many of the new jobs and not wait for them to be brought here.
Stakeholders in the Appalachian Teaching and Leadership Network (ATLN) are convinced that we can use our “rural genius” to usher in an Appalachian Renaissance, raising educational levels and growing the economy. We have seized upon the innovative Kentucky Work Ready Community program created by the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board as the blueprint to tie education to job growth. The process will organize the communities to improve the quality of life, generate positive publicity for the counties, and enable the Eastern Kentucky Region to be the first “Rural Ed-conomy Empowerment Zone” in the nation. The KY Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), Hazard and Big Sandy Community and Technical Colleges, and the East KY Concentrated Employment Program are the originating partners.
ATLN is working with the 13 counties in the Kentucky River and Big Sandy Area Development Districts to begin the process of each becoming a Work Ready Community and, thus, more attractive to employers and native entrepreneurs. While Work Ready Regions are not an official designation in this program, when the counties each meet the Work Ready Community criteria individually and become certified, contiguous counties within Kentucky can promote themselves as a Work Ready Region. The achieved designation will increase pride in the work of the community, while building a network to improve the education and local economy.
The Kentucky Workforce Investment Board is to be congratulated for its overall strategic plan to transform the workforce development system, which includes creating this certification so counties can validate the skill level of the workforce. Participating in this effort offers counties the opportunity to transform the local economy and gain a competitive advantage in attracting new businesses and jobs. The process is designed to align education, workforce development, and economic development strategies for the state and within communities by using a collaborative approach. Most importantly, it sets the bar high for educational achievement and college and career readiness, which will encourage communities to creatively and effectively collaborate and use their resources to devise strategies to reach the benchmarks.
In order to qualify for the Work Ready Community status, counties must meet certain thresholds in criteria such as high school graduation rates, National Career Readiness Certificate holders, educational attainment rates, soft skills, available broadband Internet access, and counties must also organize an inclusive planning group. A Work Ready Community In Progress designation allows counties to present a plan the meet the goals within three years.
The criteria will encourage community leaders to work with K-12 districts to improve graduation rates; increase adult education participation and success rates; promote working age persons to get at least a two-year degree and credentials needed by employers; address work ethic/soft skills development and credentialing for both secondary school and postsecondary educational adult populations; and work to get broadband access to 90 percent of the county along with strategies to enhance computer literacy for the populations.
ATLN is working with other stakeholders to promote youth leadership and entrepreneurship. Talented Appalachian youth must have avenues to use their creativity and initiative and have a reason to remain in the region. The Center for Rural Development in Somerset has some impressive youth leadership and entrepreneurship programs. These and similar programs must be expanded to more young people.
ATLN and the KVEC conducted the STARS (Students Transforming Appalachia with Real Solutions) Challenge. Teams of students from schools in local districts participated and demonstrated their research and problem-solving talent to a broad community audience. STARS provides great learning experiences available to teams of students confronting real world challenges. This year’s challenges had students focused on their community’s level of work readiness and were engaged in developing a strategic plan for their community that addressed five of the six critical areas for work readiness as defined by the Kentucky Work Ready Community program. The competing teams were recognized at the ATLN summit in Hazard on April 24 by Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Appalachian youth are one of the stakeholders in the planning process to raise educational levels, increase college and career readiness, grow the regional economy and produce Points of Hope. Together, we can all increase “hope” in the future.
Ron Daley is the Dean of Administrative Services at Hazard Community and Technical College.