The comments of business and government leaders during last week’s meeting of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors demand closer examination by everyone making decisions about K-12 and higher education in Kansas.
After “a nice run” of increasing economic indicators last year, the state’s economy has been relatively flat since May, according to the council’s executive director. And, although 16,800 private-sector jobs have been added in the state between August 2011 and August 2012, the state hasn’t made up for the 70,000 jobs it lost during the recession.
Nonetheless, there are jobs available. A recent survey by the Kansas Department of Labor indicated the state had 36,000 job vacancies in August, a 17.3 percent increase over August 2011. That’s relatively good news. However, the bad news is that business leaders at the meeting reported they couldn’t find enough qualified workers to fill those jobs.
The owner of a construction company noted the lack of trained mechanics and carpenters, which suggests the need for Kansas high schools, vocational-technical schools and community colleges to step up their efforts to train people for those high-demand jobs.
The comment of another council member was even more troubling and, perhaps, more difficult to address. Although she said later she was only speaking in general, she noted that many people were disqualified for jobs because they can’t pass drug tests or background checks. Many people filing appeals in unemployment compensation disputes, she said, “are not employable” because they have been terminated for misconduct such as stealing or failed drug tests. Such workers aren’t qualified even for the 71.4 percent of available jobs that require no education or just a high school diploma.
For some time, employers around Lawrence and elsewhere in the state have emphasized the challenge of finding employees who are ready to go to work. By that, they mean someone who shows up on time, is dressed appropriately and is ready to take instructions and learn a job. These are attributes that require no advanced training, but they are traits that many young people apparently aren’t picking up from their parents, peers or teachers.
Last week’s economic council discussion also serves as a reminder of the important connection between all levels of education and the health of the state’s economy. The fact that the state doesn’t have enough qualified workers to fill the jobs it has now — let alone those it hopes to create — is a sad situation that demands attention.