How Kansas can solve its labor shortage, stop its population decline and begin to grow again

Megan Vesterberg, left, and Beronica Cruz work on wiring an outdoor outlet on a new home in southwestern Saline County on April 27 as part of a class project. Both graduated from Salina Area Technical College’s Electrical Technology program in May. (Salina Area Technical College)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Renee Duxler is the economic and workforce development director for the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce

Kansas appears to be, very tentatively, emerging from the dust of a pandemic. And just like the pandemic itself, the emotional, physical and economic recovery is filled with unknowns, false starts, frustration, pain points and anxiety. But as with any change, we know our best response is, was, and will always be to embrace the struggle and seize the opportunity to grow. In this instance, that opportunity to grow is not only figurative, but also quite literal.

Recent nationwide census data indicates that for the first time in five decades, more than half the counties in the country lost population — two-thirds of rural counties, and one-third of metropolitan counties. Birth rate has also dropped significantly: average Americans of child-bearing age have 17% fewer children than in 1990, and 50% fewer children than in 1960.

For Kansas, our census results mirror this data reflecting only 3% overall population growth over the last 10 years. This is a noticeable slowdown in population growth from the years between 1990 and 2000, when the state grew 8.5%, and from 2000 to 2010, when it grew 6.1%. In fact, it’s the least growth the state has seen since the 1910 census.

This slow and steady “brain drain” has been the topic of conversation for businesses, schools, government entities, health care organizations and economic developers for many years now. There was a struggle to retain and recruit workforce prior to the pandemic; the speed of jobs coming back has just made that struggle infinitely more pronounced.

This reality no doubt has employers wringing their hands and making tough decisions. Prior to the pandemic, labor shortages were buffered by a leaner job market. Right now, all of the jobs lost during the worst of COVID-19 are coming back all at once. And this isn’t just in Kansas, but nationally as well. Workers know they are in high demand and they are shopping around for their jobs, as well as the communities where they want to land post-pandemic. The necessity to be highly competitive in the labor market is more crucial than in recent memory.

We know from extensive research what workers want today. A quality, living wage is one piece of this and Kansas has routinely fallen behind in keeping up with competitive wage increases both nationally and regionally. But even as we see local employers being forced by the market to raise wages, there are so many more dynamics that Kansas has the ability, the assets, and the innovation to do bigger, better and stronger in today’s “talent war.”

Research also tells us that today’s workers, especially the younger generations, are looking for the ability to meaningfully engage in both their work and their communities. As “always-on” digital natives, they seek better work-life balance and flexibility. Safe and secure streets, family friendly communities, affordable health care and child care options, quality schools and opportunities to move up in their careers all round out what is most important to the current and prospective workforce.

Kansas communities provide some of these opportunities, but Kansas employers, government officials and even residents continue to be slow-moving in responding to the next generation of workers. Most talent doesn’t immediately consider Kansas as a potential home, whether they’re from here or not. They have to be invited, and we therefore have to be more inviting — not only in our words and marketing, but also in our opportunities, employment, policy, infrastructure and representation.

It is on all of us to ensure that every single student in a Kansas school or post-secondary program feels valued and connected in their community. It’s on all of us to ensure that issues such as affordable childcare, healthcare and housing remain priorities in improving quality of life for individuals and families. It’s on all of us to ensure that diversity, in all its forms, is appreciated and encouraged. And its on all of us to extend the invitation to stay in Kansas or come to Kansas whenever we can.

I’m exceptionally proud of the work that Salina area employers and community members are doing right now to holistically extend that invitation.

Business success and economic prosperity don’t exist in a vacuum; we’re all inextricably linked. We have a very unique opportunity right now to be on a more even playing field both nationally, and even internationally, than we have ever been before. Change begets growth, and growth is more crucial than it’s ever been for Kansas to survive right now.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.