Playing the Long Game for Workforce Development

Graves County Economic Development
Written by Allison Dempsey

With its logistically ideal central location in Western Kentucky, access to three inland ports, and short, one-day drive to the majority of the U.S. population, Graves County Economic Development works to not only support its local industry by creating economic growth, but also bring growth to the region through expansion, attraction and retention, positioning itself as a first resource, or “concierge service” for businesses.

“Businesses know they can come to us with any questions they have, and if we don’t know the answer, we’ll find the answer or direct them to the appropriate resource so they can get the assistance they need,” says Ryan Drane, President of the Graves County Economic Development. “That not only goes for companies, but for site selectors and other professionals in the economic development world, including legislators and those in government. We really want to position ourselves as the go-to resource for all of those different entities.”

An ever-changing face of economic development brings with it a host of challenges, some of which include keeping everything in perspective — especially future goals — and playing the long game, says Drane – which is what economic development is really all about.

“We live in a society where instant gratification is what everyone wants,” he says. “So there’s a continuous struggle between, ‘what have you done for me lately?’ and, ‘how do we prepare ourselves for opportunities, how do we prepare our next generation to be ready to go into the workforce, grow our community and make it successful?’”

A shifting mindset
With communities and industries facing different struggles across the nation, Drane sees many regions that are unwilling to address the issues of education. He, along with others in similar positions nationwide, have come to the realization that not every student needs or should necessarily attend a four-year university program to have a successful and fulfilled life.

“There are a lot of different options out there,” he says, noting that attending a university has been a directive of education in general for many years. “Nothing negative about the educators, but that’s what [students are] being told is right. But it’s changing, with unemployment rates so low and the amount of jobs available to those with degrees compared to those with a certificate or a two-year technical degree or a high school degree with technical skill. There are a lot more jobs available for those [latter students] out there, and that demand has driven up the wages to where they’re comparable or even higher than for those with a four-year degree.”

Drane sees a big shift in focus in education, whereby educators are helping Graves County students really try to find their local career pathway — a term he likes and appreciates — while introducing them to different things, allowing them to participate in programs they may be interested in, and help them determine their best path to success.

“At the end of the day, that’s what we have to focus on if we want to retain people in local communities and we want people to have successful, happy and fulfilled lives,” he says. He realizes there’s a longstanding stigma surrounding technical education, but he’s hoping it’s changing as economic development works on the front line with various local companies to help young people see existing opportunities across the board.

“I think it’s a false stigma that really needs to be addressed, and I know there are a lot of people like Mike Rowe who are working very hard to educate people on the opportunities that do exist in the industry,” he says, referring to the television host of such shows as Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It, both of which illustrate a different subset of jobs available in the world. “We need more people like Mike out there beating the drum and showing that this world requires many different types of people with many backgrounds and educational levels.”

Supporting students
This initiative taking place in local education is one that Drane is particularly excited about and hopes will produce real change in the local community. Graves County is currently partnering with a technology company and the Four Rivers Foundation in west Kentucky to launch an app called Tassel, rolling out this year to 15,000 students looking for alternative career paths. Described as a “LinkedIn Junior,” this program will allow students to take a series of questionnaires to help them uncover their educational and career interests. Starting in sixth grade, the questions will gradually become more focused over time, guiding students on certain career paths and offering suggestions and interaction with companies that can provide real-life experience in the workforce. The app will also feature a landing page for individual companies to post job opportunities, internships and co-op availabilities for students.

“The app will tell students, ‘if you want to work for our company and you want to be a welder, these are the classes you need to be taking through school to make you better prepared for a job at our company,’” says Drane. “It allows students and companies to interact with each other so the companies are aware of students up and coming through the school system who may make future great employees.”

This initiative will also make students aware of opportunities in their local area, so they can remain there and not necessarily move away to build their future. “It’s a huge challenge in this country — keeping your talent local,” says Drane.

A third component is a post-secondary one for students who may aspire to go to a two- or four-year college or obtain a certificate or degree. Schools and universities will have landing pages where students can see which university or college offers degrees in their areas of interest, and students will be able to enter any grants or scholarships they’ve attained as well as state or federal funding and calculate per semester the cost to attend a given school.

“This is a major breakthrough when we talk about workforce development, developing pipelines for students, and putting students directly in touch with potential employers and universities,” Drane says. “There’s a clear path for them to go through middle and high school, and they’re much better prepared to enter the workforce and attend university or college when they graduate.”

Having a set plan and understanding what’s needed along the way will not only reduce stress for students, but supply much-needed guidance and support. Four Rivers will be liaising with local schools and guidance counselors to unroll Tassel, which Drane describes as a potential game-changer when it comes to employment opportunities and positioning the citizens of the community to succeed and lead fulfilled lives.

“It’s very stressful for students, and a lot of times we think you have to decide really early what to do with your life. When you get to college and you realize it’s really not where you want to be, it’s difficult to make changes then while still being confident in your ability long-term and getting the support you need.” There are a lot of people right now who have graduated high school and don’t have a set path for them due to lack of needed support, he says. They may try to find a job and have a desire to work and be successful, but have bad experiences in the first couple of jobs and simply give up and fall into the system.

“We want to encourage students, through this app and program, to go out and explore while in school with a support system,” he says. “We have a lot of companies doing both internships and co-op experiences, and this provides seamless communication between students, employers, universities and trade schools. We’re really proud of it.”

Experimenting and executing for long-term success
Graves County has a wealth of other accomplishments to be proud of as well: since 2015, they’ve announced 33 projects and put almost 1,200 full-time jobs on payroll, with estimated investments just north of 275 million dollars. That success, says Drane, goes back to the region’s biggest challenge: inevitable ebbs and flows in the economic communities. While they are having success right now, they still have to focus on the long-term game and ensure the projects they’re working on tie in to what they hope to accomplish 20 years from now.

With a population of 37,500, with its largest town at 10,000, Graves County’s ongoing credo remains trying new things without fear of failure, explains Drane. “We’re not afraid to try new programs or new ideas and run with it. If it doesn’t work, we see how we can adjust it, and if that doesn’t work, we let it go or we realize maybe now isn’t the right time. I think that’s a big thing that’s helped with our success; we’re really not afraid to try new things.”

The county boasts a large agricultural economic sector – it’s top three in the state for production of corn, soybeans and wheat – so it needs to maintain a focus on that field as well as manufacturing, Drane says – along with economic development in general and the changing face of it in this rural community.

Building long-term success also means working with leadership to develop a vision for the community and ensure everyone is working in tandem to execute on priority items, says Drane. Community development means never losing sight of the essentials – housing, infrastructure and livability – while highlighting and building on the area’s strengths. On the industrial development side, it’s about realizing you’re not going to win projects if you’re not prepared as a community. A key component is having a well-established portfolio of properties, Drane says, because if you don’t, you’re not going to get opportunities.

Looking forward
Graves County has recently signed a long-term, 10-year option contract on a 200-acre rail service site just north of interstate 69 with two buildings being constructed, one at 30,000 square feet expandable to 60,000 square feet, and the second at 100,000 square feet expandable to 400,000 square feet. It’s important when looking at ways in which to develop properties, especially in rural areas where phones may be limited, to reach out to those in the community who may have an interest in development to see how you can partner with them, Drane says.

In the meantime, this certified-gigabyte community offers much-needed fiber internet options in rural areas – which will become an even greater boon as more companies become automated and employ robotics. Graves County will also target agri-business and agri-technology as high priorities and top economic development drivers.

“We’re only here to serve during a short period of time in our community’s history, and we always need to be focused on the long game,” says Drane. “Our thought processes and experiences make us truly successful, and if we start to make that our long-term focus then I think a lot of the challenges we see right now in workforce development will be solved.”

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