Business Q & A

May 11, 2014

A conversation with Keith Lawing

Keith Lawing is getting ready for the big move.

Keith Lawing is getting ready for the big move.

The president and CEO of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas and his organization had to find temporary offices from which to operate last fall after upkeep and other issues at its leased space at 150 N. Main – including the gas being shut off – forced a quick move.

The temporary relocation split up the Wichita-based umbrella organization, which handles services and job training for several agencies. Lawing’s office and the organization’s administrative offices are at the Garvey Center at 300 W. Douglas, while the service operations are at 1220 E. First.

But by mid-June, Lawing expects to have the alliance’s service operations in a permanent home at the New Leaf Plaza shopping center at 21st and Amidon in west Wichita. There it will occupy a 23,000-square-foot space that is smaller than the 32,000 square feet of space the alliance occupied downtown, he said.

“We wanted to be as close to the core area as possible but this is very accessible by public transportation and has a lot of parking – and there will be no elevators in this building,” Lawing said. “Elevators were the bane of our existence at 150 N. Main.”

The new space has been redesigned and is being finished out.

“In the long run, we think we’ll be able to provide better service in less space because we’ll be working more efficiently and using more technology,” he said. “Even though our square footage is shrinking, we don’t think that’s a compromise to quality of service.”

Lawing’s and several other alliance offices, however, will remain downtown for awhile.

“Our administration and sort of back office will remain here at Garvey for probably at least another year, 18 months, maybe longer. We’ll keep probably 10 to 15 staff downtown and then we’ll have the rest of our crew probably about 75 staff will be working out of the new center.”

You said the alliance was gearing up for its annual youth employment program push. Tell me about that.

This has been part of the overall strategic plan for a number of years now, and we really try to use the work experience opportunity to help a young person not only better prepare themselves for the future but also achieve academic success. We’ve got a couple of dozen employers we work with where we place young people (low income, ages 14 to 21) for eight to 10 weeks in a temporary job opportunity, and in most of the cases we subsidize the wages for the employer. There are studies that show that young people who are in a structured work experience have higher graduation rates, higher earnings later in life.”

How many do you have participating in this summer’s program?

We have right now – and we’ve pretty much ended enrollment (for this year) – about 90 young people that we are placing in jobs or will be placing in jobs this summer.

Is that number up or down from previous years?

It’s gone down a little bit. Last year we had a little over 100, and when we first started this back in 2009, when we had some of that ARRA (federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding, at that time we were able to fund about 250 young people. If we had more dollars we could certainly serve a lot more young people. One of the challenges we have is that we know there are so many deserving young people that would benefit from these experiences. But we’re able to meet the needs of only a handful of the eligible young people in the community.”

Have you been able to offset the decline in federal funding for that program?

We’re able to augment that with some local dollars, but again it’s not nearly to the amount to meet the needs in the community.

How many youth would you be serving without the local funding?

It would probably be between 60 and 80.

Are there any other new initiatives that the alliance is working on?

We’re working with in a partnership with the Wichita Manufacturers Association, WATC (Wichita Area Technical College, (USD) 259 in helping to really drive and get more employers engaged in career and technical education, both at the high school and technical college level. This is a process for us to have employers at the table to really help guide and advise schools on what needs to be taught, what are the skills they are looking at for the future, and that’s been really exciting. What I’m seeing is employers are understanding that they have the opportunity to use their influence in what’s being taught in the schools.”

From a budgetary standpoint, how is the alliance doing?

There is more demand than what we have resources to meet in helping individuals to get the skills they need, but we’re doing OK. We’re getting the job done. Our funding remains relatively stable from the federal government. We’re very actively looking at grant opportunities, how to partner locally to raise dollars, to raise funds, to help increase the number of people we serve. And it’s a challenge. The talk about sequestration at the federal level certainly concerned us. I think overall, sequestration, the grip of that, has loosened somewhat. I think as things have played out, (the impact of sequestration) was not as significant as I thought two years ago. It’s been fairly stable the last couple of years.

How is the job market in the region?

It’s getting a lot better considering where we were. We have not recovered in terms of growing jobs, in terms of where we could and should be, but we are certainly seeing more employers hiring than a year ago, two years ago. We’re seeing more companies growing, and wanting to grow.

What would you say is one of the stronger employment sectors in the region right now?

Construction is showing the most visible life after being dead or almost non-existent the last couple of years.

What’s on your radar in terms of the jobs market?

We’re looking at the upcoming trend of retirements. (People) are staying on (the job) longer.

Are the delayed retirements an effect of the last recession?

Oh yeah. Maybe folks have met what they think they needed back in 2008, but maybe now they think they need more. It’s just a demographics issue that’s not playing out as past history would indicate.”

You had said a couple of years ago in an interview with The Eagle that employers these days “want a ready-made employee when he or she comes in the door.” With that in mind, is there anything a worker can do in advance to get them closer to being “ready made” if circumstances force them to seek a job outside the one they are trained or certified for?

I think part of what we have to think about is transferable skills. We have to be able to learn and adapt, and be able to prove that. I think people need to figure out a way that the skills they have are transferable or they can build on. I think we need to be more entrepreneurial than we thought we’d ever need to be.

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