Easy Access to Talent

WHEN it comes to an educated population, the Bluegrass can hold its own against any other midsize metropolitan area in the United States.

With more than a dozen colleges, universities and technical schools in the area, businesses here have access not only to a steady stream of graduates but also to faculty resources and the latest research and development. They also have access to support and guidance from the University of Kentucky.

"I've said for many years that the great cities of the future are university cities," said Robert King, president of Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

In the Lexington-Fayette County metropolitan statistical area, almost 33 percent of adults over 25 have a bachelor's degree compared with the national average of 27 percent, according to the most recent census figures. The number of residents with graduate degrees for the same demographic is 13 percent in the Bluegrass compared to 9 percent nationwide. These statistics put Lexington on par with cities such as Portland, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn.

Kentucky, like many other states, is trying to improve its educational attainment levels. And though the Bluegrass has the advantage of exceeding state and national statistics, the area will directly benefit from Kentucky's goal of better preparing students for college.

King said by passing Senate Bill 1 this past spring, the state has shown its commitment to making sure students who earn decent grades have the attained the education necessary to succeed at college. Progress will be tracked using the national ACT as a benchmark as opposed to the current Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS).

Currently, many Kentucky high school graduates are struggling at college and require remediation, said King. In fact, at Bluegrass College and Technical School, 75 percent of incoming students, including adults returning to school, require remediation in at least one area, said BCTS president Augusta Julian. Statewide the figure is more than half.

"This causes students to question their own abilities and keeps them from moving ahead as quickly as they'd like," Julian said.

King said this legislation will change that. "More students will be ready to go to college, succeed and graduate," he said.

The initiative also will help the state toward its directive to double the number of bachelor's degrees to mirror the nation's average. The state already has made some progress toward this goal, having more than doubled the number of degrees and credentials awarded statewide from 25,577 in 1998 to 52,031 in 2008. The number of graduate degrees awarded also almost doubled in the same time period.

Another state goal is facilitating students' ability to transfer between a community college and a four-year college, such as BCTS and UK, which have been working together to make this happen. This mission is becoming even more important, said Julian, as more students attend community colleges to take their prerequisites in this challenging economy.

Although Julian said the BCTS is educating more students on their way to four-year degrees and beyond, the school has a specific niche: to offer two-year programs in health science, manufacturing, construction and technical fields that fill specific job needs in the area and to develop shorter courses in tandem with companies in these fields to update or add new skills.

The challenge right now is that enrollment for this fall is up 7.5 percent as the state legislature struggles with budget shortfalls. BCTS has waiting lists for several programs it cannot expand without help from the state.

"It's a difficult situation," said Julian.

King said each university and college, like BCTS, has a niche that helps prepare students for the workforce. More than 80 percent of graduates of Kentucky colleges stay in the state to work. At Eastern Kentucky University, President Doug Whitlock said many graduates of the school find jobs in cities along the Interstate 75 corridor.

EKU, said Whitlock, provides students with opportunities in both vocational-technical programs and a broad-based liberal arts education. The school is one of the state's top providers of teachers, nurses and information technology employees. To better educate and attract future science teachers and science majors and aid in research, EKU is adding a state-of-the-art $64 million science building, which will open in the fall of 2011.

Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky is working not to attract and educate just students but businesses as well. The college has partnered with the city and state to help recruit and grow companies, in addition to helping distressed companies try and get their legs back, said Len Heller, vice president for UK's new Commercialization and Economic Development Office.

Over the past few years, UK has streamlined its efforts to work in partnership with the city and state on economic development. The joint effort is necessary to compete with other cities and nations and to respond as quickly as possible to new business applications and opportunities, Heller said.

Heller's office offers a wide range of services, including help with business planning; access to technology, intellectual and property rights; market research; and, even, entrepreneur boot camps. Several healthcare, engineering, and healthcare businesses have gotten their start through UK's business incubator, ASTeCC, before moving in to the community or out to the university's Coldstream Campus, which is being expanded.

UK also works with the Kentucky Small Business Development Center to help businesses find loans to get started or expand. In partnership, they have a special initiative to help companies in distress by looking at their business models, financials and processes.

"We've worked with 50 companies and were able to help a good majority of them," said Heller. "With some, it was just too late."

The latest innovation underway is an expert alumni network that connects businesses or start-ups with UK graduates who are now leaders in that particular field. The alumni, who will be thoroughly vetted, will volunteer a couple hours of consulting time. In a test run, 100 alumni participated and the number is growing as word gets out.

Combined, all these initiatives will drive the economy.

"In a global economy, the premium is on access to talent," said King. "What's needed most are highly educated workers. Employers will go where the brains are."

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