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OWL celebrates 52-year success story, serving hard-to-employ with workforce, job training


Opportunity for Work and Learning – OWL – serves those facing barriers to employment, providing workforce and job-readiness training. (Photo by Judy Clabes)


By Judy Clabes
KyForward editor


Opportunity for Work and Learning (OWL) just celebrated 52 years in the business of training and job-readiness of more than 23,000 people in the Lexington area.


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The program began officially in 1961 as the Opportunity Workshop of Lexington, a nonprofit serving those facing barriers to employment. It grew out of the concerns of a group of parents who wanted to help their bright but disabled children become self-sufficient adults.


The parents approached the Junior League of Lexington with the idea of a vocational rehabilitation program, the Junior League provided $30,000 in seed money from its annual horse show, and work started in a 3,500-square-foot warehouse in downtown Lexington.


OWL’s Mission: OWL partners within communities to educate and equip individuals with barriers to employment to reach their vocational goals.


Today OWL has five divisions/components; OWL Center, Lexington Manufacturing Center (LMC), Skill Enhancement and Employment Center (SEEC), Commonwealth Staffing Services, and the OWL Foundation.


The demand for OWL’s services was so great that expansion of both space and programming grew dramatically over the next 52 years.


Some highlights of OWL’s development:


1989: OWL launched an outside services department, providing janitorial and mowing services to government agencies and others;


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1998: Created a new division called Skill Enhancement and Employment Center, focusing on persons with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorder, later extending to clients with financial barriers to employment;


1999: Changed name to Opportunity for Work and Learning to better define its role;


2001: Initiated several diversification projects to implement best practices in manufacturing, providing more competitive employment training (i.e. Lean Manufacturing and ISO9001:2010)


2007: OWL Foundation established to raise awareness and funds


2011: Established Commonwealth Staffing Services


Today OWL is spread over four large facilities on Kennedy Road, having over 81,100 combined square feet of office, manufacturing and warehouse space. Services are provided in all 17 counties of the Bluegrass Area Development District. The emphasis is on job placement, work adjustments (a worker needing new skills for today’s workplace opportunities), soft skills development and re-entry. OWL provides forklift training for its clients (the only one of its kind for the deaf in the region), computer classes, all kinds of job-training as well as job-seeking services, and job analysis to match employees with employers.


David Boggs

OWL President and CEO David Boggs

“We are constantly in training mode,” said former teacher and retired superintendent David Boggs, who has been OWL’s president and CEO for nearly seven years. “We work daily with 10-12 manufacturing groups – and make their production work easier.”


Lexington Manufacturing Center, a division of OWL, works each month with another 16 manufacturing groups on an as-needed basis. LMC is a contract manufacturing enterprise whose services include packaging, assembly, sorting, inspection, recycling, refurbishing, logistic and fulfillment services, and other customer-specific services.

LMC’s Quality Management System meets the highest standard of the industry. The disciplined work experience and training environment prepares its workers for successful job placement in any workforce environment. All employees in the manufacturing program participate in LEAN manufacturing practices in cost management, people management, change management and more.


In the 15-week basic program employee-trainees get paid from day one and work for $7.25-$12 an hour. There are currently 85 employees, with new people arriving every Monday, referred from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and others. Blue Star Plastics is a competitor – “but also a major partner,” said Boggs. This demonstrates a very successful longstanding partnership between a for-profit and nonprofit industry.


12 owl 225 right“We are developing new manufacturing opportunities all the time,” said Boggs. “We compete on price, quality and on-time delivery.”


Three years ago, OWL entered the temp-to-hire business as Commonwealth Staffing Services. This service has opened new opportunities for clients and businesses. It also provides an unmet need within the community for qualified trained employees work-ready.


“We’re all about second chances,” said Boggs. “We want to create a world without barriers to employment.”


Boggs cited 52 successful competition placements during its last fiscal year, the second highest in the state last year. Those 52 workers are earning a cumulative salary of nearly $1 million, making a financial impact on the individual and family but also on the local economy.


OWL’s consumers range in life experience and ages from 16 to 60-plus. Most have not worked in a competitive work environment for over a year or may have never worked at all. About 50 percent of the clients referred for services go through job placement.


More than 250 community leaders have served on OWL’s volunteer board of directors over its productive history.


“We focus on ‘work hardening,'” said Boggs. “But if folks stay a week, they’ll stay.”


And that is a good indication that OWL will be around for another successful 50-plus years.

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