Editorials

Developing skilled workers is crucial for Kansas economy

Jeffrey Parker, a 19-year-old recent Douglass High School graduate, replaces a tool on a trim and droll machine at Spirit. He was one of about 20 high school kids working at Spirit for a summer job. Spirit sees this as an opportunity to get youth interested in pursuing aircraft production jobs after graduating from high school.
Jeffrey Parker, a 19-year-old recent Douglass High School graduate, replaces a tool on a trim and droll machine at Spirit. He was one of about 20 high school kids working at Spirit for a summer job. Spirit sees this as an opportunity to get youth interested in pursuing aircraft production jobs after graduating from high school. File photo

A staggering number popped out of Jonathan Shorman’s story on the number of open jobs in Kansas.

Four out of every 10 Spirit AeroSystems employees will be eligible for retirement within five years, according to the company. That’s roughly 4,000 jobs.

Unless something changes, there won’t be enough people qualified to fill them.

Finding qualified workers is an increasing problem, one that’s forcing government officials, economic developers and education and business leaders to find solutions that, so far, haven’t been easy. After all, how can companies be recruited to Kansas if their skilled jobs can’t be filled?

Part of the problem is a drain in the state’s workforce. The number of Kansas workers has gone down by almost 3 percent over the last eight years when the national average has gone up.

Kansas has to become better at attracting and keeping talent.

Then there are Kansas students and their paths to a career. Too many have enrolled at four-year colleges, even though they are headed for careers in which a bachelor’s degree isn’t needed.

Then there are those who complete a four-year degree in a field such as engineering but leave our state for work elsewhere.

A breakdown of vacant jobs from the Kansas Department of Labor shows 63 percent need only a high school diploma or no diploma. Eighteen percent require a college degree.

Kansas is not alone. A member of the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission spoke to the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday and said his state, too, can’t fill aerospace technical jobs created even only by attrition.

But knowing other states have the same problem doesn’t solve the problem. It only makes it tougher to compete for skilled workers.

State officials have many tools to consider. An apprentice tax credit would give companies time to train workers without experience. Relocation incentives could be used to lure qualified workers to Kansas for a job.

Already, the state has taken some steps. In the summer, the Kansas Department of Education announced a pilot program in seven school districts that focuses on identifying courses of study for children, especially those interested in careers that required technical training instead of a four-year degree.

Education commissioner Randy Watson said the redesign of the state’s public school system, which will begin in 2018, is based on feedback from businesses that recognized enough students weren’t enrolling in technical and vocational schools, or schools that offer two-year degrees.

“We’re not producing enough students with the skill set that allows most of them to seek middle-class employment,” Watson said in August.

Technical colleges offer a route to well-paying jobs and are usually much more inexpensive. At Wichita Area Technical College, the Wichita Promise scholarship program pays tuition for students studying for careers in high-demand fields.

Wichita leaders — City Hall, Greater Wichita Partnership and others — saw the workforce problem approaching and have been proactive. They recognize the danger failing to meet the demand could have.

Increasing the skilled workforce is part of improving a Kansas economy that boasts a low unemployment rate but high numbers of vacant skilled jobs. Government, business and skilled workers all benefit from an increase in the labor force that currently has 3.2 jobs open for every 100. Coming together for a fix is essential as Kansas continues to work to ensure its economic future.

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