Kansas is facing a unique workforce dilemma.
The state unemployment rate stands at 3.4%, one of the lowest in the nation. At the same time, the state faces a strong out-migration of local workers leaving the state.
So, how does the economy grow? That is the challenge that faces Kansas businesses and legislators in the coming months and years, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer told workforce development leaders attending this year’s Western Kansas Manufacturer’s Association annual Workforce Summit in Topeka on Jan. 17-18.
“What we have to do is move the skill set upward to higher skilled jobs that raise the wages for the mainstream workforce,” Colyer said. “This workforce training effort means that some investments need to be made and we are looking to make those investments.”
Colyer said Kansas has already made strides with the passage of Senate Bill 155 several years ago — a measure that provided for free tuition for high school students who enroll in technical certificate programs while in high school and rewards their schools if they earn a certificate before high school graduation.
“We have gone from about 3,000 high school students graduating with certificates when that program started to 10,000 per year,” Colyer said. “That has made a huge difference in the eventual prospects for students.”
Colyer said the legislature has pledged an additional $15 million for technical education in the coming year, and that the state is committed to working with the Workforce Development unit to increase the connection between business, industry and education.
“If you look across the state, we now have a high school graduation rate of 84% to 85%, and that is good — better than the national average — but we are still losing 15% of our kids. We need that 15% to fill our 35,000 open jobs,” Colyer said. “Let’s get our graduation rate to 95% and let’s get the rate of kids going onto an additional degree up to 75%.”
He said he wants to see advanced education expanded so that every high school student has a chance to graduate with 15 hours of college credit already earned.
“That’s a head start of a quarter of the way to an associate’s degree or an eighth of the way to a bachelor’s,” he said. “The impact of that on economic development is huge.”
Colyer said Kansas has an economic advantage in its location in the center of the continent; something that allows the state to ship products efficiently in any direction.
“Kansas is a great place; we are the heart of America,” he said. “What we need to ask ourselves is what can we do better?”
He suggested a final piece of the workforce development program should be added apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs.
“I want to see us add $1 million in investment in apprenticeship programs,” he said. “The Germans do that well and so do the Brits. We should be able to expand those programs.”