Why some Wichita-area jobs aren’t being filled, despite 14,000 jobless

Employees at High Touch Technologies work in downtown Wichita. The company said it has worked with local colleges and universities to fine-tune training for future employees to battle a skills gap that is affecting the local economy.
Employees at High Touch Technologies work in downtown Wichita. The company said it has worked with local colleges and universities to fine-tune training for future employees to battle a skills gap that is affecting the local economy. The Wichita Eagle

It’s a seeming paradox: Wichita-area employers are leaving hundreds of jobs unfilled, yet more than 14,000 people are unemployed.

Employers dub that disconnect the skills gap.

For jobs that require few skills and minimal education, there are hundreds of applicants. For jobs requiring high skills and high levels of education, employers often see few qualified applicants.

A general education is necessary but often not enough these days. Employers usually require experience in a specific job or knowledge of a specific technology or a certificate, such as a commercial driver’s license, a Net software development certificate or proven experience as a concrete finisher.

Forty-six percent of U.S. employers in a 2016 Manpower survey said they are having trouble hiring, citing lack of applicants, lack of experience and a lack of the right hard skills, in that order.

And it’s hurting the local economy and local workers.

Raymond Dondlinger, vice president of Dondlinger Construction, said his company has about 10 or 15 open positions, with a workforce of 260.

He said he has no trouble finding applicants for less-skilled positions but is struggling to find skilled carpenters, concrete finishers and crane operators.

The cost to the company hasn’t been heavy so far, but it has hurt.

We’re not able to take on some of the work we’d like to take.

Raymond Dondlinger, vice president of Dondlinger Construction

“We’re not able to take on some of the work we’d like to take on,” Dondlinger said.

Why the gap?

The skills gap has both short-term and long-term causes.

Short-term, Wichita-area employers laid off 30,000 workers in 2009 and 2010 and sporadically for another few years after that. Skills eroded during the layoff, or the workers changed careers or retired, leaving more younger workers.

On top of that, the labor market has been roiled by the increasing speed of technological change and the generational turnover caused by retirement of the baby boom generation. In some cases, older workers left the workforce, leaving their high-skill jobs open.

Or, on the flip side, in jobs particularly dependent on technology, existing workers are having trouble keeping up with advances, creating a skills gap for already employed workers.

There are critics who contend that the skills gap is a mischaracterization of the phenomenon. It is really a pay gap, they contend.

Skilled employees exist, they say, but employers don’t want to pay enough to get them. They want lower-cost workers to do the work of higher-paid ones.

They want the workers themselves to pay for training or ask public institutions, local governments or colleges to train their workers for them.

What’s being done

In the Wichita area, local colleges and universities have embraced that role, with good success.

High Touch Technologies, based in downtown Wichita, struggled for years to find enough programmers and other technology workers for its burgeoning computer services business. The struggle once was so great the company considered leaving the city.

That has improved dramatically in the past five years, said Jennifer Hughes, director of human resources.

The company worked with area education institutions to fine-tune course offerings so that students left with specific certificates. It currently has no unfilled openings for its computer services business, although it has now branched into staffing.

Our university and community colleges have been nothing but flexible.

Jennifer Hughes, director of human resources, High Touch Technologies

“Our university and community colleges have been nothing but flexible,” Hughes said. “I started here six years ago, and they’ve been phenomenal.”

And it’s not just technology. Carla Yost, system chief nursing officer for Via Christi Health in Kansas, said her system expects to have to replace 125 nurses in Kansas this year. Via Christi will hold a nursing career fair on Thursday at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis and hopes to sign up about 50 soon-to-graduate nurses.

Hospitals have dealt with nursing shortages for decades. Yost described her shortfall as manageable.

Training workers

The Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas is one of the main institutions bridging the span between employers and the workforce.

It is instituting a free worker-training program called the Kansas Advanced Manufacturing Program, funded by a $5.9 million federal grant, aimed at serving more than 1,000 participants over four years.

It starts in July and will train the unemployed, as well as existing workers, through on-the-job training, classroom work, internships and apprenticeships.

Residents of Sedgwick, Butler, Cowley, Harper, Harvey, Kingman, Marion, McPherson, Reno and Sumner counties are eligible for free tuition under the grant.

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.

Beyond that program, the short-term skills gap will mostly fix itself, said Keith Lawing, president of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas.

Businesses are being forced to raise wages to attract people with the required skills. And companies are becoming more willing to spend on worker training.

“I think it’s going to get better,” he said. “Employers are still coming off recession, where they pulled back the money for training and put the burden on the public sector. They are now finding more of a balance and are more willing to adjust wages and invest in training.”

Para-professional Adrean Foulk talks about the challenges and joys of being a para in USD 259 these days. The school district is experiencing a shortage of substitutes and paras. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle/Nov. 17, 2016)

Jeanette Richard, 73, had to find a new line of work after she was let go from her former job due to medical reasons. Although she receives Social Security, it is not enough to cover her expenses so she took a job with Goodwill. (Video by Fernando

10 hardest-to-fill jobs in the U.S.

1. Skilled construction trades

2. Truck and equipment drivers

3. Sales representatives

4. Teachers

5. Restaurant and hotel staff

6. Accounting and finance staff

7. Nurses

8. Laborers

9. Engineers

10. Technicians