Business Q & A

A conversation with ... Blake Flanders

Blake Flanders
Blake Flanders Courtesy photo

Blake Flanders is all about connecting the ivory tower to the factory floor.

He is Kansas Board of Regents’ vice president for workforce development and oversees efforts to get the state’s colleges to produce workers ready for the state’s businesses.

Flanders had made a career odyssey of his own and understands how students sometimes have trouble finding their way.

Raised on a cattle farm near Goodland, Flanders thought he’d go into agriculture, going as far as to earn a master’s degree in agriculture at Kansas State. He was teaching agriculture at Butler County Community College in the 1990s when he worked with students looking at manufacturing careers. That’s when he discovered that he really liked trying to match the needs of employers and employees through education. He then got a doctorate in education.

Flanders, 49, is married to Risa and they have three children.

Why does the state need workforce development programs?

Post-secondary education is more needed than ever before to become more competitive in the job market. The gap in earnings continues to widen between those who have post secondary degrees and those who do not. The business world needs higher- and higher-skilled employees to remain more competitive, because competition for those businesses is not decreasing, so we have to have the Kansas workforce on the cutting edge.

What is the state’s goal for post-secondary credentials?

The Board of Regents has a goal that, by 2020, 60 percent of the Kansans will have some kind of postsecondary credential or degree, but it doesn’t have to be a bachelor’s degree, it might be a welding certificate or an associate degree in dental hygiene. … I think our baseline is around 52 percent of Kansans.

Are we making progress in improving our workforce development system?

We have made great progress. We are tracking our numbers on our key strategies: Are we increasing the number of students with the right set of skills? Many of our initiatives have been copied by other states ... if that is a form of flattery, certainly we have seen that. Much of it, too, is that as we talk to businesses – are they able to find the people they need? … And students graduating from programs are getting jobs. In fact, we just had a report to the board that many of the technical programs are seeing placements of 90 percent and above.

What are the biggest hurdles that you see now?

What we know is that we need growth and in some area of Kansas we are always watching unemployment. … That means we have a lot of adults who are underemployed. We have had success with a program called Accelerating Opportunity. When an individual works toward a GED, it’s inadequate to fully participate in the economy. But we have created a program where when you go to get a GED, you also go into technical training. So then an individual will wind up not only with a GED, but a technical credential. That has more than 1,400 students enrolled.

What kind of other programs have you pushed?

It was the governor’s vision for career and technical education – and the Legislature passed it – that led to Senate Bill 155. So that where we know we have chronic shortages in the trades, shortages in nursing and shortages in IT, especially in the Kansas City area, it allows individuals in high schools to access credit hours of training tuition-free. That’s been really beneficial for our state. We had 6,100 students in the program in 2013 and expect over 9,000 this year. It’s really good for two reasons: It’s good for the Kansas economy, and secondly it’s good for individuals. If you continue on into college, you may be working while you are in college and leave debt free.

Is there a communication issue?

We really need to respect the dignity of work and it’s still a misconception that if it’s in plumbing or climate control or HVAC or the autobody industry, that somehow the jobs are low wage. That’s not true. I see in Topeka they are seeking a truck driver and they’d pay more than $50,000 and I’ve seen ads for electricians paying $65,000.

Is the training too expensive for a lot of people?

I think we have to look at return on investment. We have to expect there to be some cost. If you are going to change your career trajectory, and that will cost the price of an automobile, is that an appropriate cost? What is the return on investment for the individual, and then, if they need support, I’m a big believer in scholarships and Pell Grants.

Are students in high schools getting better career advice?

Certainly better than we had. But I think sometimes we rely only on counselors doing the advising. That is going to be very, very difficult with quite a few students. This isn’t just the job of the counselors, but also the parents, the teachers. There are a lot of spheres of influence.

Why get all that expensive education when your job may disappear in a few years?

That fluidity is now a long-term reality. It’s going to be more rare to spend 40 years with a company in the same job or with a promotion. … Our economy has changed. This is about lifelong learning, for us to say that specific amount of training is all they need of the rest of their lives is just not reality anymore. To remain competitive we have to continue to provide opportunities to get new training or new education in new skills to stay relevant.