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Group that helps Wichitans train for aircraft jobs sees shrinking funding

A Wichita Area Technical College student works on a landing gear brake during an aircraft maintenance job training program in 2014. Federal funding for job training in critical industries such as aviation has been declining over the past couple of years.
A Wichita Area Technical College student works on a landing gear brake during an aircraft maintenance job training program in 2014. Federal funding for job training in critical industries such as aviation has been declining over the past couple of years. File photo

Federal money to help retrain laid-off workers in the Wichita area has dropped by $869,000 in the last two years.

That’s enough money to serve 286 people.

So far, the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas been able to make up most of that 13 percent cut with grants.

But there’s no guarantee the grants will be there in the future, when local industry is looking to hire more skilled workers.

“There’s fewer people we’ll be able to serve at a time when we’re needing more skilled workers,” said Keith Lawing, president and CEO of the Workforce Alliance.

It’s not just the Workforce Alliance that’s seen fewer federal job training dollars, but the state as well. According to documents from the Workforce Alliance, Kansas saw federal funding provided through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act fall $1.14 million between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, and $871,000 between fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

The funding is primarily used to help low-income workers or those displaced by job loss pay for technical training in jobs such as sheet metal fabrication, composite technology or surgical technology.

It helps train people for skilled jobs like most of the 1,000 positions Spirit AeroSystems will need to fill in 2018 and 2019.

Lawing’s estimate of 286 workers is based off of his formula in which the funding pays, on average, tuition of $3,500 for one person at Wichita Area Technical College, divided by the $1 million loss.

“Any time the Workforce Alliance experiences a reduction in funding, that has a trickle down effect,” said Sheree Utash, WATC president.

Lawing said the federal funding his group and the state receives is tied to a formula that awards dollars based on a state’s unemployment and poverty rates as well as population growth. Kansas has seen declining unemployment, sluggish population growth and a poverty rate below other states, Lawing said, meaning more of the job training money has been going to other states.

“We’re getting considerably fewer training dollars across the board,” he said.

So far, Lawing said, the Workforce Alliance has been able to offset the funding decline with two grants totaling $680,000. But, those grants are temporary and when the money runs out they’re gone for good.

“2018 will be the last year we have for those funds,” he said.

In the near term, Lawing said the only solution for the alliance to continue providing financial assistance for those seeking training or re-training in the area’s needed skilled jobs is to aggressively pursue grants.

“That’s going to be our solution for the ongoing future,” he said. “It would be nice if policy makers would consider increasing the funding level for these programs.”

It’s not clear if that specific effort is in the works in Congress. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, R-Wichita, said in an e-mail that the congressman “has focused heavily on workforce development through his work on the (House) Education and the Workforce Committee and is looking into ways to improve job training.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark

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