The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP) has been in the region since 1968. The group is federally funded and is a dedicated program to helping connect employers with the unemployed. According to Jeff Whitehead, executive director of EKCEP, one of the most difficult things about this mission is finding people that fit the needs of an employer.
“[We are] working with employers to see what their specific workforce needs are, where they are struggling finding skilled people, or what is lacking in the work force that they need to prosper.”
EKCEP works in 23 counties in eastern Kentucky, and Whitehead says that despite the down turned economy there are still jobs to be found in the region.
“There are pockets of job opportunities with employers having a hard time finding the right fit,” said Whitehead. “We believe that we can do more to get out there and identify what those jobs are.”
EKCEP builds customized training programs to create a workforce of skilled workers ready for the needs of regional employers. They work with several different contractors to accomplish this.
“We do customized kinds of training,” Whitehead said. “We will work with community colleges to develop some kind of customized solution for an employer or a group of employers. We assist [EKCEP members] with tuition.”
Whitehead said they also do several in-house types of training, such as “work place behaviors, problem solving in the work place, relations with co workers and employers, job seeking as well as job sustaining once you get [the job].”
While the recession has hit most aspects of business and commerce in America in the last few years, Whitehead said regions like eastern Kentucky haven’t been quite as affected. “When recession and depression and those kinds of things hit the nation a lot of your poorer communities and poor areas are less affected because they were already there,” Whitehead said. “I can’t say [the job market] changed a great deal, we have had employers come here. We still have coal which makes up 70 percent of the economy in this region.”
EKCEP does see some opportunities to help in diversifying the types of available jobs, and they hope to work toward this with new technology.
“Technology creates opportunity,” he continued. “Go back 50 years, 40 years and even now, what keeps industry, what keeps Ford from moving here? Well, there is no flat land. There are a lot of road issues, infrastructure, highways and that sort of thing. Even though our road systems are humongously better than they used to be, we still don’t have interstate 75 running through here.”
Telework is the ability to work remotely using the internet and software platforms to connect employee to employer, which Whitehead says could be vastly important to creating a more diverse local economy. Telework gives an employer the opportunity to have a company anywhere in the country and hire employees from eastern Kentucky.
“Through technology the mountains are flattened out, high ways are here, we can create an environment where we can link people to opportunities that are away from here through a telework environment,” he said.
“The person who is working remotely from the suburbs 15-20 miles outside, why would it matter to the company if that person is 600 miles out side of town working remotely,” added Owen Grise, deputy director of EKCEP. “So as they become used to the technology ... then it creates that opportunity to stretch that cable a little longer.”
So far, EKCEP has been able to connect around 20 people in eastern Kentucky to jobs outside of the region without having anyone relocate.
But despite all the good that EKCEP has been able to do with creating jobs, they are not immune to the economic difficulties of the rest of the United States. In the past few years, they have lost between 8 to 11 percent of their federal funding every year, but stimulus money has kept any negative effects to a minimum.
Whitehead said those federal dollars have allowed them to create new programs and put a lot more people to work then they were ever able to before.
“Starting in 2009, recovery act money came and we did a lot of really cool things with that. We ran a huge work program for kids that resulted in 253 permanent jobs,” he said.
For 2011 that money ran out and the program was forced to take a hard look at their own financial and employment situation.
“So that’s when it hits home really quickly that we have lost 25 percent of our … money too,” said Whitehead. “Roughly a $2.5 million cut before all the recovery act money came. We had to lay off some people here.”
The program currently has 1,263 people in active training and 1,600 that are using other types of services.
“All of our training dollars are being consumed by those people,” said Whitehead. “So we aren’t enrolling anyone new, and haven’t been able to for a while.”
However, the lack of funding does not mean the program is giving up on its mission.
“We are being creative,” he added. “One of the things we are initiating through our whole region … is to have active job clubs.”
Job clubs are groups of people that are actively looking for employment. They are able to network with one another and with employers. Since EKCEP isn’t able to do any formal academic training with new members, this gives them the opportunity to still work with them.
The clubs help to work on various job finding techniques, like elevator speeches, resume writing, and learning that finding a job is a job in itself. The Perry County job club started about a month ago and has already had 11 members hired for positions out of it.
The clubs also deal with the emotional issues surrounding job hunting and act as support groups. To get involved in a job club, find out about work opportunities, or learn more about EKCEP visit there website at www.EKCEP.org.