Want a better-paying job? This free training could help

Wichita Area Technical College student Juan Castillo works in the school’s Welding and Architectural Design class. (Oct. 18, 2016)
Wichita Area Technical College student Juan Castillo works in the school’s Welding and Architectural Design class. (Oct. 18, 2016) File photo

More than 1,000 people in south-central Kansas will receive tuition-free job training over the next four years as part of a nearly $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor announced on Tuesday.

The free tuition will be only for advanced manufacturing and aircraft manufacturing programs, such as welding, CNC and CATIA machining, composites and robotics.

Students will also be offered paid on-the-job training at area manufacturers while attending classes.

The free tuition will start being offered in the spring.

To get the tuition-free training, students will have to go through the regular admissions process at the participating colleges: Wichita Area Technical College, Hutchinson Community College and Wichita State University. Admissions officers will advise students on their status.

Also part of the group that sought the grant were the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, Spirit AeroSystems, the Greater Wichita Partnership, Textron Aviation, XLT Ovens, JR Custom Metals, Flint Hill Industries, the Lowen Corp., the Bradbury Group, the Kansas Department of Commerce and Kansas WorkforceOne.

Residents of Sedgwick, Butler, Cowley, Harper, Harvey, Kingman, Marion, McPherson, Reno and Sumner counties are eligible for the tuition grants. The group expects 1,100 students will receive free tuition under the grant.

The grant aims to fix two big problems: Area manufacturers have been complaining for several years that they can’t find enough qualified workers at the same time thousands of local workers are working low-skill, low-wage jobs, said Keith Lawing, president and CEO of the Workforce Alliance.

For workers, the grant lowers the financial barriers that may have kept them from getting training before. The tuition for such programs costs between $2,000 and $8,000.

And having the company pay an on-the-job training wage can be critical to those who live paycheck to paycheck.

For the companies, it’s a necessity in a strong economy to have more workers, especially those trained in the latest technology, said Brenna Davis, chief operations officer of Cox Machine.

“In the manufacturing world, we are competing with our customers (for workers), and the technical education programs can’t seem to spit out workers fast enough,” she said.

Cox Machine has added 75 workers in the past three years, she said. It is getting ready to add a 50,000-square-foot facility and is preparing to go after significant new contracts.

Davis estimates the company will need between 20 and 80 people over the next five years, depending on how things go. Workers might start at $11 to $12 per hour but move to $16 to $18 per hour within two years, depending on the worker’s position and skill.

“It’s just been a very competitive workforce market in the last few years,” she said. “Hopefully this will alleviate some of that.”

Local companies tend to be excited about worker training only when the local economy is strong and jobs are plentiful. Wichita is five years into an upcycle, and its unemployment rate is 4.5 percent.

But when the economy cycles down, companies traditionally lay off large numbers of trained workers.

Lawing acknowledged that people take a risk in spending a semester or two in training. They may get the training and not get a job. Or they might go into manufacturing just before the layoffs start.

But he said the low financial cost of the training and possessing a certificate makes such a bet far less costly.

And, he said, the retirement of the baby boomer generation – who are now all over 50 – means manufacturers are seeing a continuous erosion of their older workforce, which presents a better opportunity for younger workers to remain employed and move up the ladder.

“We need to draw as direct a line as possible from the training to employment if you are going risk your time and money,” Lawing said. “They have to be fairly confident that the job they hoped for is there.”

For WATC, which has the largest part of the training effort, it will likely add hundreds of students to its enrollment, which this year is about 3,500. The school is seeing record enrollment in part because of the Wichita Promise program, which also features free tuition for worker training.

WATC president Sheree Utash said 75 students are in the Wichita Promise program this semester, rising to about 125 or 135 next semester.

“This is the next natural big step up from the Wichita Promise program, and this gives us the opportunity to really ensure workers can train for high-wage, high-demand jobs,” Utash said.

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis