Politics & Government

Jobs bill shortens the journey for low-wage Kansas workers to improve their careers

The road from store cashier to sheet metal mechanic was a difficult one for Mary Jane Lake.

A native of the Philippines, she had a high school diploma that U.S. colleges and employers wouldn’t recognize. But she persevered, working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week — holding down two jobs while earning her technical certification and her Kansas high-school equivalency diploma.

“I work in Spirit (AeroSystems) now,” said the 39-year-old mother of three. “I am very proud to be a mechanic.”

On Monday, Lake got to meet Gov. Laura Kelly, who was in Wichita to ceremonially sign and celebrate Senate Bill 199.

The new state law is designed to ease the way for working adults to do what Lake did, earning the educational credentials they need to improve their life while supporting a family.

“This new bill will help our state grow and thrive and make our communities a better place,” Kelly said.

The bill is called the “AO-K to Work” Act and the acronym stands for Accelerating Opportunity: Kansas.

Essentially it establishes a system in which students over 21 can earn high school equivalency credits by participating in “career pathway” technical training.

It streamlines the process from what many working adults used to face — having to earn a GED first and then get a technical certificate to work in aircraft manufacturing, health care and other well-paying, in-demand careers, said Chris Stanyer of Goodwill Industries.

“We’re shaving a good year, year and half off” the process of work readiness, said Stanyer, who heads up the NexStep Alliance, an educational partnership with Wichita State University Tech.

Under the AO-K Act, adult students who pass an exam to qualify can go straight to technical college classes and earn an industry-recognized certificate, while also working on skills in English, math and data interpretation.

After earning their certificate, they can test again to show they have high-school-level proficiency.

Lake’s journey from the cash register to the aircraft plant illustrates the challenge.

Mondays through Thursdays, she took classes in sheet metal work from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at WSU Tech, then GED classes from 6 to 9 p.m.

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, she worked the register at Dillon’s from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., then at Burlington Coat Factory from 2 to 10 p.m.

That while being a wife and mother to three boys, ages 9, 13, and 20.

She said she’s been at Spirit eight months and life is lot better now that she makes $16 an hour — compared with the $8 she was making as a cashier.

“My journey was very hard, but I made it through,” she said.

Kelly actually signed SB 199 in April and it took effect in July. Monday’s ceremony was attended by about 70 business leaders and city, county and state government officials who worked toward the passage of the law.

Andrew Wiens of the Wichita Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said the organization supported the bill because “we see it as creating more opportunity for (students) entering the workforce faster.”

Kelly said when it comes to education, career readiness is “one of the most important goals we can offer to our students.”

“This is an ideal opportunity to offer educational advancement and help people in the program transition quickly and smoothly into our workforce,” Kelly said.

While she was in Wichita, Kelly also ceremonially signed a bill that will eventually allow Sedgwick County voters to cast their ballots at any polling place in the county on election day.

That won’t happen in time for the November city elections because Secretary of State Scott Schwab is still drafting regulations to implement the details of the change, officials said.

It should be in place by the 2020 election, Schwab has said.

Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, helped maneuver the bill through the Statehouse.

Voters throughout the county can already cast a ballot at any voting site during advance voting. And it was only state law that mandated voters go to particular polling places on election day, he said.

He said the change should reduce the number of provisional ballots that the county has to handle each election “from 1,700 to none, ultimately.”

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