Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky President Susan Elkington, left, looks on as JAG KY students Morgan Jones and Serena Lamoy unveil a donation of $140,000 from Toyota to establish the JAG KY program at Great Crossing High, Scott County High, Phoenix Horizon Community and Elkhorn Crossing School.

Susan Elkington, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK), knows there is a skilled workforce gap as unemployment rates reach record lows.

Data indicates the skilled workforce gap will reach 2 million in the next decade, so she wanted to check out Jobs for America’s Graduates Kentucky program and visited classes in Lexington.

She liked what she saw, and Tuesday, TMMK joined with Jobs for America’s Graduates Kentucky (JAG KY) and Scott County Schools to announce a collaboration to bring the program to Great Crossing and Scott County high schools, Elkhorn Crossing and Phoenix Horizon Community. TMMK contributed $140,000 to fund the initiative.

“Supporting education has been at the forefront of Toyota’s social innovation strategy, so when we were approached by Jobs for America’s Graduates Kentucky, we took a long, hard look at the program,” Elkington said. “It actually didn’t take long to look because the facts speak for themselves. JAG believes each student, given the instruction and encouragement they need, has it in themselves to reach their highest potential.

“These are students that by having this focused instruction really empowers them to become the best they can be, and I believe it is important for every student to have that opportunity. Yes it is about the future workforce, and with the way the unemployment rates are and the skill gap, we need everyone participating.”

This is the first time the JAG KY program has come to Scott County Schools, and its president, Lisa Handziak, is excited about the possibilities.

“Susan came to visit some of our students and walked out and said I need to hire these students. How do I make this work?” Handziak said. “We’ve been working on how to establish a pipeline since. Susan understands this is a long-term investment knowing she won’t see a return on the investment for two to three years, but Toyota is trying to get ahead of the problem of the skill gap.

“Throughout Kentucky industries are in crisis. We know this. At JAG, we are producing students that can meet their needs. Our students are not only prepared for the workforce, they are resilient. This partnership brings together collaborative efforts, resources and talents, and recruits new employees who want to work and live and stay in Scott County.

“To effectively address the workforce crisis it is going to take private industry, education, government and nonprofits working together to address and produce the employees for tomorrow.”

JAG KY serves more than 3,000 students through 65 programs in 25 counties. The program partners with schools to help students determine what’s next for them. It is taught as an elective class but is also a club that focuses on community service, employability skills and civic awareness. Where it is in place, JAG KY had a 100% graduation rate in 2017 and an 85% job or military placement rate.

“Our goal is to help students become productive members of their communities, but graduation is the first step. We stay with students for 12 months after graduation to help them transition to a job, military or college,” Handziak said.

Even though it is new to Scott County, students are already reaping the program’s benefits.

“We are all excited about this announcement, but no one is more excited than JAG students. JAG has already made a difference in our lives and we have barely gotten started,” said Serena Lamoy, a first-year JAG student from Great Crossing.

“JAG teaches us real-world lessons with project-based learning and brings in experts from in-demand industries and provides us with practical life skills like finance management and conflict resolution.

“The best part is after graduating they help us transition to whatever field we choose, whether it is straight to the workforce, college, training or the military.”

Wyatt Klaber, from Phoenix Horizon, and Morgan Jones from SCHS, both said the program will help them be successful after graduation, whether it is being a business owner or pursing a health care profession.

Elkington said what career path the students take is not as important as making sure there are workers available.

“When unemployment numbers are what they are, it is not about one industry over another. We have to support other industries,” she said. “It is about our future workforce at Toyota, but we need everyone participating in the workforce.”

Santana Kavanaugh, a student at Elkhorn Crossing, said the program has helped her see there are opportunities in Kentucky that she had not thought about.

“It’s helped with getting my resume together, but over the past few years, I’ve realized I have a passion for community service,” she said. “At first, I wanted to be an attorney and go to Washington, D.C. But I think there are a lot of things in Kentucky I need to start with and accomplish and change at home before I go anywhere else.”

This is just the type of program districts need to embrace, said Scott County Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Hub.

“I was at a conference last week and it was said there are 60,000 fewer students in public schools this year. That is a demographic trend that is only going to continue,” Hub said. “Public schools have to do a better job of preparing students for the next step into the workforce and make sure everyone is going to be successful.

“The career education and skilled training provided through Jobs for America’s Graduates all help students meet the demands of the workforce and thrive in their future careers. We are thankful for the support of Toyota and the work of JAG KY to make this opportunity possible.”

Handziak was equally thrilled with Toyota’s support.

“My hope is that other industries will see what Toyota has done and that other industries will follow. The average cost to get a student through our program is $1,500. Compare that to training and rehiring, and we are a no-brainer.”

Steve McClain can be reached at smcclain@news-graphic.com.

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