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Kansas has jobs, but where are the workers?

Tam Nguyen, 18, decided that it was smarter for her to attend WATC for an aviation maintenance degree instead of going to a traditional four-year university. (Sept. 15, 2017)
Tam Nguyen, 18, decided that it was smarter for her to attend WATC for an aviation maintenance degree instead of going to a traditional four-year university. (Sept. 15, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Companies that employ thousands of Wichitans may face a choice in the not-so-distant future: Keep jobs here or move them elsewhere.

Kansas is thirsty for skilled workers – the kind that work at Spirit AeroSystems or Textron Aviation – but it can’t find enough.

The shortage becomes more urgent each year as baby boomers grow older and retire. Over time, it threatens economic growth here.

How the state responds may affect your ability to get a job in the future.

Right now, you may be able to quickly find a good-paying job, if you’re able to work in fields like advanced manufacturing and other technical industries. But if companies don’t come to Kansas, or don’t expand because they can’t hire enough workers, that will leave fewer options for all workers eventually.

“Are we doing everything we can do in the state of Kansas to backfill those jobs so that Spirit, Textron and other major employers don’t have to make a choice between Wichita and other operations they have around the world?” said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The Eagle spoke to more than a dozen business, civic and state leaders who say that too often the workers that could fill these jobs just aren’t here or lack the necessary skills. They advocate an array of steps to combat the problem, from more technical education to better-targeted tax incentives.

Kansas had close to 45,000 job vacancies in 2016 – or more openings than the entire population of Hutchinson. That’s according to the latest available survey by the state Department of Labor, which looked at vacancies in the second quarter of the year.

For every 100 jobs, about 3.2 were vacant, according to the survey. A full half of the vacancies either lasted more than 30 days or were always open.

Kansas’ labor force has shrunk from more than 1,525,000 in 2009 to about 1,480,000 today. The labor force nationwide has grown during the same time.

The state’s unemployment rate stands at a low 3.9 percent.

The shortage of trained workers is likely to surface as an issue in the 2018 governor’s race – and in the next legislative session – as candidates and lawmakers debate how to spur economic growth.

“We need more people moving into Kansas,” Gov. Sam Brownback said recently.

“It’s not going to do any good to bring companies in if they can’t get staffed,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican who chairs the Senate commerce committee.

Companies look for help

The problem affects companies large and small.

Spirit AeroSystems employs more than 10,000 in Wichita. A full 40 percent of that workforce will be eligible for retirement within five years, said Justin Welner, the company’s vice president for human resources.

“This is the topic that keeps me up at night,” Welner said. “Because we are experiencing a gap in terms of finding people with the experience we would typically require.”

The company may need to hire thousands within the next few years just to keep pace with attrition. Right now, there are not enough people here to do it.

Spirit is recruiting nationally to make up the difference and sometimes has to put new hires through intensive training that adds costs.

Drew Parish runs Air Solutions Heating and Cooling in Wichita. He grew the company from a one-man show to a four-person operation in three years and he wants to keep expanding. Help is hard to find, though, as he found out this year when he tried to find more employees for his repair and service business.

“We couldn’t get a good applicant in, no matter what avenues we were trying. There just weren’t the qualified applicants,” Parish said.

Someone starting out with no experience can expect to make $10 to $12 an hour, while a moderately experienced employee will bring in $18 to $20, he said. High-experience workers earn $26 an hour or more.

Finding a skilled workforce has been the top concern expressed by members of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce for the last four to five years, Plummer said.

Wichita needs to keep talent flowing into the state to keep the city and Kansas attractive to businesses, he said.

“It’s holding back economic growth, I believe, in this state because those jobs are not always being filled,” Plummer said.

Focus on education

So how can Kansas find and keep enough workers – particularly those with technical skills that are in demand?

The state faces dual challenges. It must both train its own residents for these jobs and attract workers from elsewhere.

To lure Kansans to enter these trades, more emphasis is needed on vocational and technical training, some say.

“Everyone’s going to four-year colleges, which is very admirable, but it’s leaving this industry … at a loss,” said Parish, who runs the heating and cooling company.

Nearly 75 percent of the more than 8,300 vacancies in south-central Kansas last year required some type of training or education. About 10 percent required vocational training.

In south-central Kansas, 24 percent of job vacancies had no education requirements in 2016, down from 36 percent in 2008.

 

Education must adapt, says interim Kansas Commerce Secretary Nick Jordan.

“There’s going to have to be an adjustment in the education system ... to a certain extent, to get the system adjusted to the skills – educating kids to what’s needed in today’s economy,” he said.

Kansas has a program that allows high school students to qualify for state-paid tuition in some technical and community college courses. The number taking part rose from about 6,101 when it started in 2012 to 10,275 in the 2014-2015 year before falling to 10,023 last year.

Some lawmakers and business leaders say the program needs better funding.

The Kansas State Department of Education has also launched a redesign of K-12 schools meant to value and support students who choose to pursue technical careers as much as those who go to college. A handful of districts are redesigning now as part of a pilot project.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said a perception still exists in Kansas, and other states, that students should attend college even if they may want to go in a different direction.

“There’s more social prestige in those areas, but what we find is kids – they start in that area but if you don’t have the preparation and the interest, you drop out, you aren’t retained and then maybe you’re kind of out of the system,” Tallman said. “We know that’s an issue.”

Tam Nguyen is one 18-year-old who opted not to go to a traditional four-year college.

Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam three years ago, chose to enter the aviation maintenance program at Wichita Area Technical College.

She wants to someday work for the aircraft manufacturer Textron Aviation.

The idea of helping build safe airplanes appeals to her – as does the possibility of a good-paying job without amassing college debt.

“I feel important, I feel special in doing it – happy,” Nguyen said.

Still, Kansas is also interested in retaining people who have college degrees. Rep. Brandon Whipple, the ranking Democrat on the House commerce committee, said Kansas has to reverse its “brain drain.”

“Our number one export in Wichita and possibly all of Kansas is highly educated young people,” Whipple said.

Kansas needs to work to bring jobs to the state that will appeal to young people, said Jordan, the commerce secretary.

“We have to start attracting companies that the kids will enjoy working for,” Jordan said, mentioning Amazon, which is seeking a site for its second headquarters. The Brownback administration is promoting the Kansas City area as a potential location.

Incentives questioned

Tax incentives often play a role in luring companies to the state, but some businesses want the state to explore new types of programs.

Welner, the Spirit executive, suggested Kansas should look at relocation incentives to assist workers moving to the state to take a job.

Parish, the owner of Air Solutions, wishes Kansas had an apprenticeship tax credit that would make it easier to hire people without experience and put in the time needed to train them.

Some lawmakers want a greater focus on the kind of jobs that incentives are bringing to Kansas.

“Are those the kind of jobs we want to have? Are those jobs that have a good wage? Are they jobs that can attract high school and post-high school people that have some experience?” Lynn said.

Recent efforts to bring a new Tyson Foods plant to Kansas have highlighted these concerns.

Tyson announced plans to build a $320 million poultry complex near Tonganoxie, northeast of Lawrence. Tyson says the plant would generate 1,600 jobs.

But the company put its plans on hold after the county government rescinded an offer to issue revenue bonds to help finance the project amid intense local opposition.

The Kansas Department of Commerce already faces legislative scrutiny over how it deploys its economic development programs. Kansas has to balance what companies to pursue, and what companies are coming after Kansas, when making decisions about incentives, Jordan said.

“And certainly, we’re after those (companies) that have the high skills, best paying jobs,” Jordan said.

“We’re not going to turn somebody down if they come in and they have a manufacturing plant that’s not paying $100,000 a year. We’re not going to turn them down, and the programs can help them, too.”

Quality of life important

Quality of life also plays a key role in attracting people to the state. That includes the type of jobs available, but also good schools, low crime and other amenities.

Kansas and other Great Plains states can face trouble in keeping workers because labor is more mobile in these states than elsewhere in the country, said Kenneth Kriz, a economist at Wichita State University.

That makes quality of life considerations all the more important.

“When people lose a job in this part of the world, they leave. If they lose a job living in California or something, they may choose to stick it out and try and find another job there first,” Kriz said.

The state also needs to do a better job promoting itself, lawmakers say. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the state needs to start telling the “good story” about its people and the opportunity here.

Nguyen, the Wichita Area Technical College student, is already convinced. She said ultimately working in aviation maintenance in Wichita will help her earn a good wage while staying close to family.

“Take the opportunity and make a better future,” Nguyen said.

Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star

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