A conversation with Tony Kinkel

07/01/2012 7:18 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

Tony Kinkel is a believer in the value of technical school.

He is the president and chief apostle of Wichita Area Technical College. As he sees it, his main job these days it to convince students, parents and whoever else that technical college is the solution to their problem.

He says one of the key problems in the economy is that there is a shortage of technically trained workers and an oversupply of graduates of four-year colleges who are underemployed.

He is particularly excited about a new state program that will pay the cost for high school students to get certifications in high-need occupations.

Kinkel, 51, has spend his life in education. A graduate of the University of Minnesota, most recently he was president of Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, and before that he was chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College in Batesville, Ark.

So is WATC ready for the coming upturn in the economy?

Educationally yes, culturally, no … I think we have got the facilities and educational curriculum to satisfy aviation and all of the others. What we don’t have is for you and I and our neighbors to believe that going to a technical college is, in fact, a first choice. …Culturally we still live in society in which our first instinct is for our kid to go to a four-year university. … Over 50 percent of the kids are trying to get the third of all jobs that need a four-year degree. The math doesn’t work. Our argument is there are too many folks trying to get into those slots and not enough – and this is why the governor was here – in the two-year associate’s degree/certificate programs.

In fact even today, the person waiting on me had a four-year baccalaureate degree in music: “Why are you working at Yia Yia’s?” “I can’t find a job.” And so there is this complete disconnect and what the governor’s proposal seeks to do is provide an opportunity for us to work with students before grade 12 on some better options leading to jobs.

What’s in the state plan?

If you are a high school student and go to technical school or community college for an industry credential that is identified as high need in Kansas, the state will pay your tuition.

What are the high needs professions?

They are identified by the Secretary of Labor, and she is in the process of doing that right now. But in the past they’ve been in health care and some of the manufacturing areas. So she will come out with the high-need jobs, and then we’ve got to design an industry credential to meet that need to give them that training free while they are still in high school. So a junior or senior can get a CNA, a certified nursing assistant, you need that even to become a nurse, at WATC and or we’ll go out to the high schools and deliver it, and the state will pay the tuition. The second incentive the government has is that they give $1,000 a kid to the school as a bounty.

Won’t getting a large number of high school kids to take outside classes during school be difficult?

Students don’t really want to because they are in football or basketball or in band or whatever. So it’s incumbent that we design industry credentials that can meet the need of the student. It’s going to be a challenge for us. It’s a tremendous step in the right direction, and the commission assumes there will be a great deal of flexibility in terms of designing these credentials.

Why couldn’t it be done after high school?

I think the governor’s view was you’ve got to start earlier in a child’s career. If you wait until they get out, public pressure is to go to a four-year school.

What’s needed to change the culture of seeing a four-year college as the primary destination after school?

“They are going to have to focus much, much earlier. … It’s a opportunity for us to come to students and parents and say, look this is where the jobs are. In Colorado where I was president we had a lineman program, 15 weeks to learn how to scale the poles after a tornado or fire to fix the wires. The starting salary was $42,000 – that’s more than I pay a starting English teacher here with six years of college. And the parents say, “Hey, that’s against the rules.” The rules are set by industry. Welcome to the real world. That is what is not clicking with parents. They think of a tech college as a second-rate institution and that has got to change, and will change, and has already changed in Europe. It’s equal; it’s just different. You have a university track, and trade track.”

How much appetite is there out for it?

If we can design a credential that industry says is valuable and the high school kid will do it, it will be successful. If it turns out we can’t, we will have to get some additional flexibility. We will pick all of the low-hanging fruit right away. … The market is already there, the question is how many courses will they need, will they do it at night or in the morning; will they bus up here or will they get it down there. The law starts July 1.

How soon would you offer this?

We are trying to get it done starting this fall. …I mean they put some real money into this thing. Why wouldn’t you get tuition paid for if you could. Why would the school district not go after the $1,000 if it could.

Could Wichita really absorb that many technical workers?

We are doing work right now in Oklahoma for Spirit. We are going to go where there is a market. Yes, we want to take care of Kansas first, but our students are nimble and will go wherever there are jobs.

But are there really jobs out there for them?

The average age of manufacturing workers is 52. If their 401(k)s ever come back enough to where they can retire, you are looking at job shortage of epic proportions.

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