To boost efforts to fill the state’s skills gap, the Governor’s Council on Education and representatives from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the University of Kansas School of Business’ Brandmeyer Center for Applied Economics were in town Monday to listen to local business people discuss and define the need for a skilled workforce in Finney County, as well as to promote the Kansas Skills Gap Survey.

“This survey-based research project will poll Kansas businesses on their experiences recruiting and hiring a skilled workforce,” Nick Jordan, former Kansas Department of Commerce secretary and now a Distinguished Fellow with the Brandmeyer Center, said during the town hall meeting at St. Catherine Hospital. “The evolving Kansas economy demands new skills for success and ongoing collaboration between the state’s business and education sectors in order to prepare future employees. There has to be serious dialogue between businesses and education at all levels for this to be effective in filling the skills gap. It’s a great first step.”

According to Bryan Frye, with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Wichita’s vice-mayor, the data collected through the survey would help the chamber develop an action plan to address the state’s workforce needs over the next two decades.

“We frequently are told by employers of their difficulty in finding qualified employees to fill vacant positions in a variety of industries and occupations,” said Lona DuVall, president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp. “They share that the local labor pool doesn’t match the growing demand for jobs that require strong skills, proper training and certification, sufficient levels of education and previous work experience.”

The FCEDC began addressing the local workforce issue about five to six years ago, when the staff got involved with Garden City Community College in developing and launching defined workforce programs, like welding, to ease the demand for specific skill employers. They also began working with Kansas Workforce One and KansasWorks. It continues to this day.

“It’s one of three challenging initiatives we face when we work on expanding the tax base in Finney County,” DuVall said. “We need employees, housing and childcare to sustain the growth we’ve brought in and to keep that level of economic viability growing on our side of the state. Currently, we have about 1,000 employment vacancies in Finney County and are short a bit over 500 childcare positions. We have been addressing workforce development and housing for over five years, and we’re addressing the childcare shortage by identifying potential solutions.”

 

Frustrations continue

Justin Donecker, with Engineered Truss Systems in Garden City, told Jordan and Frye of his company’s growing frustration with high school graduates who are unable to read a tape measure, who are not ready to work, demonstrate an unwillingness to learn and speak English, or learn a new skill that doesn’t involve a phone or computer.

When asked what were some of the stumbling blocks businesses experienced in hiring, Justin Sanchez with Tatro Plumbing said, “The Department of Labor has listed building construction as high risk, so we are unable to hire anyone under the age of 18. That ruling has made it almost impossible for us to recruit or influence kids who might be interested in the building trades as by the time we get to them at 18, it’s almost too late as they have moved on to something else.”

Chuck Pfeifer, dean of GCCC’s technical education and workforce development, said the community college remains aggressive and committed to meeting Finney County’s workforce programs that prepare students for skilled positions.

“We can offer any skilled labor program you can dream of,” he said. “My challenge is finding qualified individuals to teach the classes. We have seen enormous success with our welding and John Deere maintenance programs, but finding persons with the credentials to instruct is a daunting task as those individuals can usually go to the open marketplace and get double the salary compared to what I can offer them.”

Jordan said he was encouraged with the Kansas Board of Regents’ commitment to making necessary changes in the K-12 curriculum to better align businesses and education in addressing the employment challenge plaguing the state.

“If you’re having difficulty finding faculty to teach your program classes, this is where the Regents can help facilitate a solution,” he said. “For an example, if could be a Kansas State University professor or ag instructor who could be a shared teaching resource.”

 

Workforce raided

DuVall mentioned that Kansas City, Johnson County and Colorado Springs regularly tap the county’s firefighter and police departments as those communities have come to know that Garden City’s diversity and public safety programs make for a great recruiting ground.

“In addition to public safety, we lose skilled labor in the fields of education, healthcare and accounting services to eastern Kansas and other states at an alarming rate,” DuVall said. “In the meantime, there continues to be an increasing demand not only for those skilled positions, but also for those individuals with administrative office experience, all aspects of the building trades, electricians and plumbers. I think we need to do a better job in educating our students about the opportunities that may require additional training but not necessarily a four- or eight-year degree. That starts early in the home and with school counselors and teachers.”

Both Jordan and DuVall encouraged all business owners regardless of sector or need for skilled labor to take the Kansas Skills Gap Survey (KansasSkillsGap.org) and voice their opinions to better help the Regents and the Brandmeyer Center discern ways to help businesses get the skilled labor they need to be successful.

The groups from the Governor’s Council, the Kansas Chamber and KU will be hosting another workforce town hall meeting from noon to 1:30 p.m. today at Guymon Petro Bar & Grill, 301 4th Ave., in Dodge City.