Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman has made a career out of defying the odds.
She decided at a young age that she would champion the cause of the underdog and turned herself into one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in recent Kentucky history. A career educator, coach and mentor, Coleman adopted one of her players and gave birth to a daughter on Feb. 8, 2020, shortly after being sworn into office as the 58th lieutenant governor of Kentucky.
She completed her coursework for her doctorate at the University of Kentucky while running for statewide office, an election she would win as the running mate of now-Gov. Andy Beshear in November 2019.
Now a mother of four, Coleman has never wavered in her pursuit of a better life for the people under her care and tutelage. In 2013, she founded Lead Kentucky to help college women in Kentucky prepare for leadership positions on campus and later in their professional careers.
More recently, she served as assistant principal at Nelson County High School and is nearing completion of her doctorate in educational leadership from UK.
Gov. Beshear tapped Coleman to become Secretary of Education and Workforce Development. In a recent interview with Site Selection, she discussed her priorities for the state and the people she serves.
What did you learn from coaching basketball that you are able to apply as Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky?
COLEMAN: I would say that playing and coaching basketball did more to prepare me for this position than just about anything else I did. The governor and I have talked a lot about everybody coming together as Team Kentucky during this pandemic.
From basketball, I gained the experience around what it means to be part of a team and to lead and to sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was how to be resilient. You can seldom control what happens to you, but you can always control how you react.
You founded Lead Kentucky, which empowers women to become leaders on campus and in their professional careers. Are there any aspects to that program that can be replicated statewide?
COLEMAN: I founded Lead Kentucky because I recognized that girls were typically the leaders in high school. They are often the valedictorians, class presidents, etc. I saw the disparity across the board in elected office and CEO offices and corporate boardrooms. I did the research and concluded that women who lead in high school typically fall off the leadership track when they go to college. That was really concerning to me. College is the time when you plan the rest of your life. If you do not see yourself as a leader then, you never will. With Lead Kentucky, we recruit the best and the brightest and empower them to become leaders.
We allow them the opportunity to learn from leaders across Kentucky — CEOs, educators, business owners, etc. The lesson every year that the college women learn the most is that success is never a straight line. You learn more from your losses than you do from your wins.
You are currently working on your doctorate in education at UK. What are you learning that you can apply in your role as Lieutenant Governor?
COLEMAN: My doctorate is in educational leadership at UK. It was a great segue into this position. I finished all my coursework in the primary. Looking at educational leadership, it is as much about organizational leadership as anything. That has really helped in this role as I build relationships, organize task forces and committees, etc. All the skills and experience I had in that program really helped to shape the understanding and application of the concept of leadership in this role.
Workforce development is a complex system. How does higher education in Kentucky equip and prepare the state’s workforce of the present and future?
COLEMAN: It is obvious to me, but I am not sure it is obvious to the public. I am a firm believer that our workforce and the quality of it and our ability to build a world-class educational system go hand in hand. Advancing and developing a workforce — that is a large ship to right. You do not build an economy overnight. It really does take an intentional focus that you can bring the most change and hope to.
We have developed the Commonwealth Education Continuum. It is about building a cradle-to-career educational system for career development. From early childhood education to the jobs of the future — every step along the way, the foundation is education. We are focused on getting our students in higher education to focus on expertise. We help young people to become experts in their field.
The Promise Scholarship program enables disadvantaged students to go to college and earn a degree without incurring debt. One of the biggest barriers to higher education is the cost. We can help our workforce advance their education to the next step. That can also give them the exposure they need. They can turn their associate degree into a bachelor’s degree. They are continually advancing their ability. The more streamlined and efficient we can make that, the more adaptable we can be.
What is Kentucky’s secret weapon when it comes to workforce development?
COLEMAN: Our secret weapon is our people. We have an entire commonwealth full of people who are known for their hard work and determined spirit. Kentuckians have banded together and pushed through the hard times. It speaks volumes that we are still able to create jobs in Kentucky. We were one of the first states in the nation to get our students back in the classrooms because we were the first to vaccinate all our teachers. We still lead the nation in vaccinations. We waived the testing fee for the GED. Anyone in Kentucky can take the GED for free. That is an example of how we can upskill our workforce. The cost of getting a GED was the main barrier to why people were not taking it. We have also invested $1 million into a program to recruit diverse teachers. Representation is vital to our success. Our teachers are the first leaders our kids see outside of the home. We are continuing to push the Kentucky workforce forward.
Do you plan to run for governor someday?
COLEMAN: In the last year, I have been sworn in as lieutenant governor, I have had a baby, and I have helped lead this state through a worldwide pandemic. I love my job. I am going to keep doing my job until someone tells me not to.
What did Kentucky get right about its response to COVID-19 and the corresponding economic slowdown?
COLEMAN: The pandemic has taken such a toll on every aspect of our lives. Kentucky did it right because we have a governor who treated every Kentucky family as if they were his own. That is the highest compliment I can give Gov. Beshear. He had to make tough decisions that he did not want to make, but he did it because it was the right thing to do. We put our families first. We were able to get through this and come out of it even stronger.
Kentucky is leading the South-Central region in capital investment projects per capita, according to Site Selection. Even when you must make tough decisions, when you put people first and invest in your human capital, good things happen. We are on track to generate new jobs. All of that is because we have worked to give Kentucky families opportunities to be healthier and better educated.
Did you learn anything new about workforce development and training during the pandemic that can be applied moving forward?
COLEMAN: We learned that we are much more flexible and adaptable than we thought we were. That helps the workforce in the long run. We have companies and organizations that are figuring out how to maintain that flexibility.
The greatest thing that came out of this was this: COVID-19 created its own set of problems, but it also exacerbated issues we had been dealing with for years. One example was the transition to digital learning. Many kids do not have computers at home. The Digital Divide was something we had talked about for years. We deployed hot spots to every K-12 household in the state. We lowered lack of internet access from 15% to 2%.
What is your message to corporate leaders who may be considering Kentucky for an expansion location now?
COLEMAN: One is that for businesses looking to expand or relocate, you want to do that in a place that has strong leadership and has proven that it has weathered the storm. We have proven that because of Team Kentucky. We have shown our resilience. The governor has expanded voting rights in a deep red state at a time when we are seeing states cause a divide in voting rights and cause corporations to leave states. Secondly, we ran on a foundation of building a strong workforce to build a strong economy. He will help you build yours.
After your career is over, what would you like your legacy to be?
COLEMAN: I would hope that I am remembered as someone who made a difference by investing in the next generation of Kentuckians. As someone who fought for everyone in Kentucky, regardless of their zip code, and gave them access to a quality education that changed the trajectory of their lives.