Business Q & A

June 3, 2012

A conversation with Keith Lawing

Keith Lawing sees today’s struggle to find good work going on after the economic downturn ends.

Keith Lawing sees today’s struggle to find good work going on after the economic downturn ends.

Lawing is executive director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, a Wichita-based umbrella organization for several agencies that handle the unemployed and job training.

Based at 150 N. Main, the alliance and its member agencies offer counseling, workshops and job training funding and help with job searches. It also helps screen job applicants for employers.

Lawing, 46, is married to Kimberly.

Why is the workforce center so busy today?

It’s a new requirement for people who are applying for extended unemployment benefits. They have to come to the workforce center as part of the extension of benefits.


Part of the requirement is that they come down and go though an orientation on our services. I think there is a natural inclination, one of the things that we’re somewhat challenged with is that when someone loses their job, they don’t think they need help to find a job, so they are doing it on their own. They are not coming down, not using the resources. They don’t know what they don’t know, about the job postings, the training or resume workshops that we offer to get them ready.

How is the job market?

There’s not enough hiring going on, but I can tell you it has improved significantly in the last six to 18 months in terms of the number of jobs that have been posted. … Aviation has seen a little movement. Health care is solid. Construction actually is seeing a little movement.

Isn’t health care hiring slowing?

In nursing, you don’t have as great a demand as before. But there are pharmacy techs and occupational therapists, there are a lot of allied health positions that we are seeing a lot of growth in.

Have some of the long-term unemployed become unemployable?

They are not employable if they are not aggressive about becoming more employable. We don’t necessarily have a labor shortage, we have a skills gap. And employers are talking about not finding the qualified folks in their applicant pool. You get qualified by experience, through education and through training. The structural shift is seeing fewer employers investing in a limited-skills individual and saying, “OK, you meet all the qualifications in general, but your skills are deficient, so we’ll skill you up.”

I don’t think (employers) have the luxury or the philosophy to do that anymore. They want a ready-made employee when he or she comes in the door. It’s much more important to have a specific skill set or credential of some kind that demonstrates that “yes, I have that skill.”

You’ve had budget problems in the past. How are things now?

We are holding our own. We’ve been aggressive going after grant opportunities, and haven’t had to go to waiting lists (to supply training money). If somebody thinks they need some skills training, we have money to do that. … But I will tell you I am very worried as we move forward because rules are being changed for qualifying for Pell Grants. By lowering the income eligibility, there will be a lot of folks who no longer qualify. And at the federal level, the potential budget sequestration (across-the-board federal budget cuts at the end of 2012) could have a big impact going forward.

Your overall budget is about $7 million. How much would that federal cut mean?

Our last year’s federal allocation was over $3 million, so take 25 percent off that.

There was a lot of talk five years ago about a coming shortage of skilled workers. Does that still worry you?

It doesn’t. That expectation was built on the fact that as soon as folks became eligible for retirement, at 62 or 65, they retired. Then we ran into the financial crisis and everybody got a little skitchy about “Will I have enough to retire on?” … But the other thing they forgot about when they did those forecasts is how much healthier we are now. You’re 65, you’re feeling good, why would I retire? I think you will see older workers stay in the workplace longer than they did previously, and that changes the dynamic. … I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but it certainly does put a lot of pressure on younger people if we are not creating a whole lot of new jobs.

What does it mean for younger people?

If you were just entering the job market, or even if you’ve got 10 or 20 years left in your career, there is a good chance that you’ll be working at a job that does not exist today using technology that doesn’t exist today. … You have to be ready for change, to understand the technology and understand self-promotion. It’s a lot more competitive now, and the competition that we’ve seen in the labor market for the last two years, I don’t think that’s ever really going away. … The assumption has been that if I’ve got a good education, decent resume, got a nice suit and answer all the questions right, I’ll get a job. But everyone else is doing the same things; you have to learn how to stand out.

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