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Kentucky Lags Behind Nation in Workforce Participation

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Kentucky’s leaders are grappling with how to get more of the state’s residents into the labor force. 

In 2015, the commonwealth ranked 46th in the nation for its workforce participation rate, according to Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner.  The rate is determined by the number of adults between the ages of 21 and 65 who are able to work.

Kentucky Labor Secretary Derrick Ramsey says employers are frustrated that too many prospective workers can’t pass drug tests.

"Of the worst 220 counties in America, 54 of those counties are here in the state of Kentucky, where the drug scourge and epidemic is just sucking the life out of us, if you would," Ramsey told WKU Public Radio.

Kentucky has about 130,000 able-bodied residents who choose not to work.Manoj Shanker, an economist in the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training, says with an unemployment rate of 4.9 percent recorded in July, the state is at nearly full employment.

"Anybody who really wants a job has a job," Shanker commented.

Shanker says there are several factors as to why the the state's workforce participation rate is so low. Kentucky has a slightly higher number of retirement-age residents than other states, and the number of Kentuckians on disability is twice the national average.

Many Kentucky employers say the state is also lacking prospective workers who possess soft skills.  That includes attributes such as good attendance, appropriate attire, teamwork, and strong communication.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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