Kansas Chamber analysis plants seed of statewide workforce development overhaul

State needs better education, business links and more apprenticeships

By: - October 21, 2020 2:24 pm
Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said the business organization wants the 2021 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly to embrace a series of reforms to help the economy survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Alan Cobb, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Chamber, said the business organization wants the 2021 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly to embrace a series of reforms to help the economy survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Chamber released a blueprint for upgrading workforce development Wednesday that relies on expanding high school and college students’ preparation for high-demand careers, massive growth of apprenticeship opportunities and investment in recruiting of younger adults leaving the military and former Kansans living in nearby Midwest cities.

At the core of the analysis was the belief states successful in building a bigger talent pipeline to educate, train, recruit and retain a qualified workforce would exceed economic progress in states that fell short on that front. The report sponsored by the Kansas Chamber and produced by Economic Leadership, a consulting firm in Raleigh, N.C., focused on how education could better align with staffing needs of industries.

“You’re in competition with the other states in the country and labor is the top issue,” said Ted Abernathy, of Economic Leadership. “You cannot have a state that’s going to be successful that isn’t able to grow its labor and isn’t able to continue to give its labor the skills that they need in a pretty fast changing world.”

The report concluded Kansas businesses were having difficulty finding workers with required skills, employers weren’t sufficiently involved in the education system’s workforce development and the state’s colleges and universities should more quickly respond to economic shifts.  

“We expect this report to be a living plan that will improve and expand in the next few years as  the Chamber meets and works with other stakeholders committed to addressing our state’s workforce challenges,” said Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber.

The report included 20 reform ideas, including a suggestion Kansas labor law be amended to allow people under 18 to get more work experience and to extend school district liability coverage to protect businesses that take on young employees or interns.

Local chambers of commerce should help small and mid-size businesses connect with K-12 schools for job fairs, mentoring, job shadowing, site visits and in-school presentations, the report said.

The study recommends the 2021 Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly work together on a scholarship program targeted at Kansas high school graduates studying in high-demand fields at community and technical colleges. The initiative should require recipients of the financial aid stay in Kansas for two years after completing a degree or certificate program.

The report said Kansas ought to establish a goal of reaching the national average for the number of active apprentices per 100,000 people in the working age population, which would require doubling this number from 132 to 263 within five years.

“Those numbers still look low to me. We also need to look at youth apprenticeships,” said Cynthia Lane, chairwoman of the Governor’s Council on Education.

In fact, the state of Missouri has an apprenticeship program in information technology with more than 5,000 participants.

The consultants said Kansas could create an apprenticeship tax credit for businesses in a manner adopted by South Carolina and Alabama. With an infusion of state funding, Kansas could deepen the number of registered apprenticeship programs sponsored by the community or technical colleges as well as industry association boards.

The Kansas Department of Corrections should form more partnerships with community and technical colleges to train incarcerated adults and youth in preparation for their release from custody, the report said.

There should be statewide goals for higher education institutions in terms of the percentage of students placed in workplace internships, the report said. In addition, Kansas college scholarship programs, including nursing and engineering, should be tied to post-graduation residency requirements.

“Recruiting talent back to Kansas can get very expensive. It’s much easier to keep talent that’s here,” said Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, which has oversight of 32 public colleges and universities.

Flanders said Kansas universities were able to replace with out-of-state students the Kansas high school graduates who enroll at college in other states. The problem is many of these nonresident at Kansas universities leave the state after graduating because they can earn more money in jobs elsewhere, he said.

For example, he said, an electrical engineering graduate from Kansas can make $15,000 more a year in Missouri and $20,000 more annually in Texas.

The consultants recommended Kansans use state or private funds to recruit former residents of the state in nearby Midwest cities, especially those in the family-formation stage of their lives. The selling points ought to be quality of life and affordable cost of living, the report said.

The report also proposed Kansas increase career transition outreach efforts to military personnel in Kansas who are preparing to enter civilian life.



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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.