A new report identifies Wichita as having one of the largest manufacturing skills gaps in the nation.
The business consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, which released its report earlier this week, examined the question of whether the country suffers from a shortage of high-skills workers.
Many manufacturers complain that they want to hire, but they can’t find enough workers with the right skills for the jobs they have open – that’s the story line supported anecdotally.
The authors conclude that, for the most part today, the skills gap is a myth, more a function of companies not willing to adequately pay qualified workers or train unqualified ones than not being able to find workers – a conclusion many manufacturers and government officials might dispute.
But the report also say that there really is a skills gap in Wichita and a few other cities. Shortages exist in machining, industrial engineering technical work, mechanical drafting, CNC machine tool programming and dental laboratory technical work. Other high-skills job categories either had no shortage or don’t exist in Wichita.
The authors identified skills gaps when wages for high-skills occupations rose 3 percent faster than inflation over five years as companies bid up wages. The data for the study comes from 2005 to 2010.
Michael Zinser, one of the report’s authors, said he didn’t have specific figures for Wichita’s shortage, but it is a portion of the 7,000 local workers in the high-skills job categories.
Local and state officials also see the skills gap in Wichita, and while it may have eased in the recession, they say it will get worse in coming years.
There are several factors driving a gap, said Sheree Utash, vice president of Wichita Area Technical College.
Hundreds of high-skills workers in Wichita’s manufacturing plants are near retirement age, and there are fewer young people qualified to replace them, she said.
And, she said, while it’s still very early, the city’s manufacturing sector is slowly beginning to rehire.
The long run is what scares Spirit AeroSystems, said company spokesman Ken Evans. The company has hired more than 2,000 people worldwide in the last two years and expects to keep adding workers as its production continues to rise.
“Spirit is experiencing a skills gap in finding individuals with the right critical skills in both salaried and hourly positions in our workforce,” he said.
Closing the gap
Building a more skilled workforce is an expensive, complicated and long-term project, say local officials. Utash named several efforts to encourage more people to get training for in-demand jobs.
Sedgwick County took a key step in 2006 in approving the National Center for Aviation Training, run by Wichita Area Technical College. It gives the county a platform for classes and programs.
“It makes us more prepared to meet the demand,” she said.
And WATC recently was awarded an $8.9 million grant to work with employers to create certification programs for aircraft workers, similar to a registered nursing certificate in health care. That would give companies a guarantee of worker skills, transferable to other locations around the world, and it would give Wichita-trained workers an edge over non-certified workers elsewhere.
The state will hold a summit in Wichita on Oct. 29 at NCAT on North Webb Road to tell local manufacturers about the certificate programs and encourage them to hire certified workers. The state is encouraging its technical and community colleges to offer more programs that end in certifications such as Certified Production Technician.
“Industry frequently says it is not getting what it wants, somebody who has the skills,” said Kathy Hund, director of training and education at the Kansas Department of Commerce. “It could be that for industry there is a credential that would promote those skills. Our education system is pretty good, so that when the pain gets greater and the retirement group falls off the cliff, there will screaming and crying again, but maybe not so much if we have time to prepare.”
The state is also providing for people to enroll in training programs. It said it would offer high school students free tuition in technical school courses that the state deemed were in high demand. The program, approved by the Legislature last spring, is available only at some high schools presently.
Evans, of Spirit, said the company is following efforts at the state, local and college level closely and is encouraged.
“But we don’t feel comfortable enough to take our eye off the ball anytime soon,” he said.