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Promising career pathways in Appalachia

Late in 2018, a diverse group of companies, community and educators met to cement a partnership that would bring high-quality career pathways — apprenticeships — to southeastern Kentucky’s Appalachian region.

The Kentucky Advanced Technical College High, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, combined technical instruction with paid, on-the-job training under a skilled mentor. The goal was to help students in the region move smoothly from high school to postsecondary education and employment.

Kentucky Appalachia has been affected drastically by the loss of coal jobs, the opioid crisis, pervasive poverty, and health care disparities. To address these issues, the program partners expressed particular interest in developing apprenticeships for high-demand, high-growth occupations in allied health. Apprenticeships in these areas would provide both solid careers and needed services in the region.

Business-education partners in apprenticeship

The partnership enlisted the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation (IWSI) America to develop the customized, innovative apprenticeship model. The group has previously provided technical support and program design to a wide range of businesses in the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore and Australia. Each apprenticeship program is unique and a hybrid model was developed to suit the local Appalachian circumstance.

The Appalachian model included the following elements:

  • Working with educational institutions and other training providers to align technical skills and workplace competencies
  • Working with educational institutions and employer partners to develop or modify curricular materials to meet changing business demands
  • Offering professional development and capacity-building sessions for apprentice trainers and educators to ensure that training engages apprentices in active learning
  • Identifying and training mentors to work with apprentices throughout the tenure of their apprenticeship
  • Identifying apprentice candidates from underserved populations and isolated service areas
  • Exploring and documenting employment pathway options for all apprentices participating in the program
  • Recruiting additional businesses from the region who agree to hire apprentices
  • Exploring comprehensive wraparound services to ensure apprentices can complete programs
  • Managing assessments of apprentices’ competencies to produce periodic progress reports and validate their ultimate certification as skilled workers
  • Developing long-term talent pipelines for employers

Career pathways in Appalachia | Medical student textbooks with pencil and multicolor bookmarks and stethoscope isolated on white

The Kentucky Advanced Technical College High partners include:

  • Appalachian Regional Healthcare
  • Primary Care Centers of Eastern Kentucky
  • University of Kentucky Healthcare
  • Hometown Pharmacy
  • Perry County Schools
  • Hazard Independent Schools
  • Hazard Community and Technical College

The career pathways program was launched in mid-2019, after months of intensive planning by the project partners. Students who progress through program completion can receive multiple credentials upon graduation, including a high school diploma, a U.S. Department of Labor accreditation, and even an associate degree. Beginning in ninth and tenth grade, interested students enroll in technical courses where they can earn both high school and college credit. The students also receive work experience in career areas related to their coursework, initially by job shadowing. Then, in their junior and senior years, the students may be hired as apprentices at local businesses.

Supporting students & the economy in times of challenge

Launching shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was not ideal. Despite that challenge, however, the partnership not only survived but thrived, with 65 students participating in the project to date. Some continue to work as apprentices for the programs health care partners; others enrolled in college to pursue interests in allied health — studying medicine or related fields. Still others discovered that careers in the health care field were not for them. Those learners shifted their dual college credit to another apprenticeship pathway, and we know they’ll find success.

Having resided in Kentucky for most of my adult life, I have witnessed the many challenges in Appalachia. I am proud of the partners and participants especially during the unprecedented time. Business, education, and community partners have come together to create a strong model for helping young people transition from school to meaningful work. Young people who may have left the area have stayed in Kentucky due to the partners’ investment in career pathways. They’re getting the education and experience they need to secure well-paying jobs in high-demand career fields.

Deborah Williamson is vice president of special projects and operations at the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America. Previously, she oversaw New Mexico’s Bureaus of Wage & Hour, Human Rights, Public Works, and Child Labor and was general manager of juveniles’ services for the Kentucky Court of Justice.