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Archive for Monday, July 26, 1993

VOCATIONAL-TECHNICAL TRAINING ESSENTIAL TO MEETING EMPLOYMENT NEEDS THROUGHOUT COUNTY

July 26, 1993

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Employers in Douglas County say they can find plenty of people for jobs at the bottom and top ends of the employment spectrum.

It's the technical jobs in the middle, those that require more education or training, that are harder to fill with local hires, the employers say.

But until the population of Lawrence and Douglas County reaches critical mass, there's not much chance the area will get its own vocational-technical school, officials say.

Lawrence is too close to schools in Kansas City and Topeka and not big enough to support its own school, although "it kind of depends on who else settles here," said Phil Anderson, president of the electronics firm Kantronics Co. Inc.

But school counselor Sherry Slade disagrees.

"We're a big enough city," said Slade, a counselor at Lawrence High School. "I feel our kids are at a disadvantage. Here we offer some things, but it's not concentrated. It's only two or three hours a day.

"Plus I wonder, if we had a program, would that make it a more visible option? ... Parental expectations are why we have a hard time getting students interested in vo-tech brochures."

Vocational and technical programs can be taken at community colleges and technical schools.

Because Douglas County lacks a community college, it pays out-district tuition for county residents enrolled in junior college programs in other Kansas counties.

In 1992, for example, the county commission paid $449,580 for community college out-district tuition -- academic and vocational classes -- for county residents, of which 65 percent went to Johnson County Community College.

JCCC officials reported 804 students from Douglas County were enrolled last fall. Of them, 332 were "general transfer," or preparing to transfer to a four-year college. Others were enrolled in associate programs, such as dental hygiene, accounting, business administration, nursing and hospitality management, or were undecided.

Just how many are attending other vocational schools is difficult to determine. An official of the Kaw Area Technical School in Topeka could not say how many Douglas County residents were enrolled last year.

A vocational-technical center in Douglas County would benefit not only students but also adults who want additional training or retraining, said Betty Lynn, a counselor and job training co-coordinator at the Alternative High School.

But the lack of vocational training is not the problem, said Pat Anderson, who heads the Center for Training in Business and Industry.

"Lawrence doesn't need a change in vocational programs so much as it needs a change in attitude about vocational programs," she said.

Instead of college, some high school students should consider other career options, said Bob Eales, director of vocational and continuing education at LHS.

"People who are plumbers or fix air conditioners, they're driving Mercedes and Cadillacs," he said.

Pat Anderson said she founded CTBI in 1986 "because I perceived a need in the community, to provide people with vocational skills in less than a four-year degree, a step between high school and KU."

About 40 to 50 students are enrolled each quarter at CTBI and study for one year to acquire the skills they will need to qualify for jobs at Sallie Mae and similar service companies.

Having prior experience in office work or customer service, analytical or debt collection experience is useful for employment at Sallie Mae, said Joyce Shaw, regional director for organizational development and training at the loan service center.

Training was an issue considered by the Horizon 2020 strategic planning group, which tried to anticipate local employment needs over the next 25 years, said Shirley Martin-Smith, a task group member, former city commissioner and owner of Adia Personnel Services.

"Part of what we're looking at is what training is missing," she said. "Everyone is looking at the K-10 corridor as a vast opportunity in a while. We need good communication between the employers and the people providing the training."

Part of that training should include improving basic skills, employers said.

Barbara Brothers, treasurer of Kantronics, said she's seen a decrease in basic math and English skills levels over the years.

"I think one of the problems is kids don't have basic grammar skills," she said. "It's hard to write resumes without them."

Some Douglas County jobs are so specialized, however, that typical vocational schools would have a hard time structuring a curriculum. Those same companies have difficulty hiring employees who already live in Douglas County.

Take Reuter Pipe Organ Co., for example.

The pipe organ company employs about 45 people, including some hired from out-of-state, personnel head Alan Fisher said.

"The man who supervises the department that makes the organ pipes is a university graduate in ceramics and some metalworking," he said. "We don't really expect to find people with experience building organs in this area. We hope we might find somebody who has ability with their hands and brains, and we can teach them about building the organ."

Fisher said he doesn't expect any changes in Reuter's workforce in the future.

"For the present, we feel comfortable with what we've got," he said. "We've got almost zero turnover."

Some companies hire almost all their employees from within Douglas County. Kantronics, which is in the midst of a gradual expansion, now has 50 employees, and most of the production and clerical staff are county residents, Brothers said.

But it's harder for Kantronics to find employees for more specialized jobs, such as engineers and technicians, she said.

Employees for those jobs are getting training at technical schools such as DeVry Institute of Technology and Topeka Technical College, Phil Anderson said.

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