Whitesburg KY

Mable Duke retires from EKCEP

Blackey native Mable Duke has retired as executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc. (EKCEP) following a highly successful 22-year tenure with the Hazard-based workforce agency.

Jeff Whitehead, an 18-year employee of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP), has been tapped to lead the Hazardbased workforce development agency as its new executive director.

Duke’s years of service are marked by innovation, achievement, and repeated statewide and national recognition for EKCEP, which administers federal and state workforce development services for employers and job seekers in 23 eastern Kentucky counties.

Although Duke leaves EKCEP after 11 years in the agency’s top post, she spent her entire post-college career – minus an eight-year childrearing sabbatical – serving in various capacities at the agency.

“It has been my life’s work to see this agency grow and prosper,” Duke says. “As I look back over the years, I’m truly filled with a sense of pride and satisfaction.”

Duke says a good measure of that pride and satisfaction stems from the accolades EKCEP and its workforce services have garnered that have established the agency as a vanguard among its counterparts in Kentucky and the rest of the nation.

Honors received by EKCEP under Duke’s leadership include being repeatedly recognized as a national model by the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Social Policy Research Associates. Those honors recognized EKCEP’s innovation and best practices in the implementation of the “onestop” concept with its JobSight workforce centers, and the creation of services that address the workforce needs of the region’s employers.

EKCEP also landed on the front page of The Wall Street Journal in 2003 as part of a story on how the workforce system is addressing the nation’s unemployment problem. EKCEP’s workforce services were cited in that story as a leading example of how, “Sometimes, the system works.”

Most recently, EKCEP’s Coal Services Program was named the national winner of the Department of Labor’s 2007 “Leveraging the Power of e3 Partnerships” award, which recognizes the value of projects that demonstrate sustained collaborations among employers, educators, and economic development. As a result of that win, EKCEP was recognized in the federal Congressional Record, and received official commendations from the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives.

Though unquestionably EKCEP’s leader, Duke says the agency’s staff shared in each of those successes.

“Over the years, I’ve pulled together a staff of some of the brightest, most capable professionals in the workforce business today, and I created an environment at EKCEP where these individuals work together as a team and complement one another,” Duke says. “Every single person in a management position at EKCEP was hand-picked by me, and I’d put them up against any local Workforce Investment Area staff in the country and they wouldn’t feel any heat.

“We’ve always worked together as a team and encouraged each other’s growth and success, and the results have been pretty amazing,” she adds.

Duke’s career with EKCEP began in 1977 shortly after she earned a bachelor’s degree in social welfare from Morehead State University.

In the years that followed, Duke continued to move into positions of greater and wider responsibility at EKCEP. These moves culminated in her being named the agency’s deputy director in 1995, and a year later, executive director. She held that position until her retirement on Dec. 31.

Duke says she considers the private accomplishments during her term as executive director just as significant to EKCEP as the agency’s many public accolades.

She says those moments include seeing the agency’s annual budget skyrocket during the first three years of her directorship from about $6 million in available revenue to more than $30 million. Duke also spearheaded a coalition in 1998 that won “automatic designation” in federal law for high-poverty rural areas like eastern Kentucky.

That designation ensures EKCEP can continue to function as one of the nation’s four Concentrated Employment Programs. It also gives the agency greater autonomy and local control in the delivery of Workforce Investment Act (WIA) services that meet the workforce needs of job seekers and employers, Duke says.

“EKCEP also consistently exceeded all mandated state and federal performance standards, despite the considerable economic, education, and geographic barriers facing eastern Kentucky,” Duke says. “We have always prided ourselves on raising the bar on performance expectations and working creatively to redefine services that will have a lasting impact on our region.”

Duke’s insistence on pushing beyond the status quo helps characterize her legacy within the agency, according to “Mable has been a singleminded and goal-oriented leader, and EKCEP’s many successes and accomplishments for our region can be traced to Mable’s vision and courage to strive for excellence and push past the ordinary,” Jeff Whitehead, the new executive director of EKCEP, says. “It has been a great privilege for me to have the opportunity to work with Mable, and I hope the very best for her.”

Although she is enjoying spending more time with her family, Duke says she plans to go back to work at some point this year closer to her home in Richmond.

“Life is full of opportunities,” she says. “I haven’t decided which path I will take, but I know whatever I do, I’ll approach it with passion, integrity, and purpose. Whenever you do that, good things cannot help but follow.”

Duke says that philosophy helped propel her career at EKCEP, and will help the agency continue to successfully serve eastern Kentucky’s employers and job seekers well into the future.

“I hope I’ve laid a foundation that will enable EKCEP to experience success and recognition that will bring lasting change to the economy of eastern Kentucky,” Duke says, “and make the accomplishments achieved during my tenure pale in comparison.”

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