Wichita Kansas needs to take quick action to fill thousands of jobs in technical or advanced manufacturing industries or those companies might consider moving the jobs elsewhere, civic and business leaders said.
Kansas Department of Labor data show the state had 45,000 job vacancies in 2016, with 3.2 of every 100 jobs being vacant and half of those vacancies lasting more than 30 days or staying open.
The Wichita Eagle spoke to dozens of leaders who said companies such as Spirit AeroSystems or Textron Aviation, which employ thousands of people in Wichita, are desperate for workers, and the problem is only expected to worsen as more baby boomers retire.
Justin Welner, Spirit AeroSystems vice president for human resources, said 40 percent of the company's more than 10,000 workers in Wichita will be eligible to retire in five years. Spirit is recruiting nationally and sometimes has to put new hires through intensive training.
"This is the topic that keeps me up at night," Welner said. "Because we are experiencing a gap in terms of finding people with the experience we would typically require."
The lack of workers could prompt companies to stay out of Kansas or to put off expansion plans.
"Are we doing everything we can do in the state of Kansas to backfill those jobs so that Spirit, Textron and other major employers don't have to make a choice between Wichita and other operations they have around the world?" said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Kansas' labor force has dropped from more than 1,525,000 in 2009 to about 1,480,000, even as the labor force nationwide has grown. The state's unemployment rate is a low 3.9 percent.
"It's not going to do any good to bring companies in if they can't get staffed," said Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican who chairs the Kansas Senate commerce committee.
Interim Kansas Commerce Secretary Nick Jordan said the state's education system needs to change to offer more of the skills needed in today's workforce.
Kansas offers a program that allows high school students to qualify for state-paid tuition in some technical and community college courses, but lawmakers and business leaders say it needs more funding.
The Kansas State Department of Education has also launched a redesign of K-12 schools meant to support students who choose to pursue technical careers as much as those who go to college. A handful of districts are redesigning now as part of a pilot project.
Still, Kansas also must retain college graduates and work to reverse its "brain drain," said Rep. Brandon Whipple, the ranking Democrat on the House commerce committee.
The officials offered several possible solutions including attracting businesses such as Amazon that appeal to young workers; considering relocation incentives to lure workers to Kansas; offering an apprenticeship tax credit to help people while they are being trained; and reconsidering how the state apportions tax incentives to appeal to the most desirable industries.