Rural Colleges See Potential in Tech Grants

By Emily Rogan

The need for IT workers is growing in eastern Kentucky. A White House initiative called TechHire seeks to give tech grants to programs that can train people quickly.

In eastern Kentucky, where the waning coal industry has left so many people out of work, government, education and business leaders are collaborating on a joint initiative to provide IT training for the citizens of that region, while simultaneously redefining the area’s future economy.

“Community colleges are the first step for secondary education because there are not a lot of universities in the eastern, rural part of the state,” says Jay Box, president of Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS). “We are the No. 1 provider of workforce training in our state — customized training that quickly gets folks retooled and retrained and back into the workplace,” he says.

The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, the board that implements federal workforce programs, has developed a partnership with Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), local agencies and nonprofits to support efforts to develop the IT sector in 23 counties. A steering committee is working to define how a federal initiative called TechHire can support those efforts.

Recently announced by the White House, TechHire is geared to largely underserved populations across the country to help quickly train them to qualify for well-paying technology employment. The initiative that brings together colleges, universities and nontraditional coding boot camps, along with $100 million of competitive tech grant money, will be made available through the Department of Labor for such programs.

A training model that works

In another part of the state, Louisville has experienced success with Code Louisville, recognized by the White House as a model program to train and prepare software programmers and coders at an accelerated pace, preparing them to be hire-ready in as few as 12 weeks. This illustrates how IT employers, local government and, in this case, a coding boot camp, rather than a college or university, can work together to provide skilled employees to meet the needs of a growing industry.

Officials are hoping to see similar results in the eastern part of the state, where community colleges are working with their business partners to accommodate the need for IT programmers and IT security personnel. “The message is that they want them now, and we have to be responsive to their needs and provide workforce training first,” Box says.

Students in entry-level certification programs can work through the training quickly, sometimes in just six weeks to three months, while simultaneously creating pathways that they can build upon at a later date to work toward an associate degree. “We try to stress that the higher degree you get, the longer your career,” Box says.

Community colleges play a big role

KCTCS is working with its business partners to help shape curriculum, forming IT committees to revise and align what’s being taught with today’s new business models, particularly in terms of relevant coding languages and programs. “In today’s changing economy it’s important for community colleges to be that agile, flexible connector to the job sector,” Box says.

As such, KCTCS plays an immediate role in the resurgence of eastern Kentucky’s economy. According to Box, “We have to be an active partner with community leaders, government officials and business officials to drive the economy and train the workforce of the future. Without us, it can’t happen.”

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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