Ex-education official focuses on Kansas workforce challenges

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker listens to comments from State Board of Education members in this AP file photo from April 9, 2014, in Topeka.

? Kansas’ former education commissioner is hoping to bridge the divide between how schools teach and what businesses need from their workers.

Diane DeBacker was appointed late last year to the new executive director of business and education innovation position at the Kansas Department of Commerce. Her job is meant to bring education voices into the department, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported .

DeBacker hopes to bring education and business officials together to better prepare students for the workforce at a time when Kansas faces worker shortages in skilled and technical jobs.

“This is not a new topic for commerce. It’s not a new topic for Kansas,” she said. “I think it’s just taken on more of an urgency lately as we’ve looked at some of the businesses that have wanted to locate here in Kansas, some of the businesses that have wanted to maybe retool what they’re doing.”

DeBacker said ensuring schools are teaching for jobs students can get could mean rethinking the school day structure or tailoring curriculum for students’ career interests. She said the Commerce Department will outline goals in the coming weeks.

Nearly 49,000 jobs were vacant across Kansas last year, up more than 9 percent from 2016, according to the state’s Labor Department. DeBacker said health technology, agriculture and manufacturing are some of the areas facing worker shortages.

“Kansas is not unique in that we need a skilled workforce,” she said. “We know that the better we prepare our students … the better we prepare our students to match the needs of employers, it’s more likely that they’re going to stay in Kansas. Our economy will get better because of that, and we’ll have more businesses that want to come to the state of Kansas because we can supply that workforce.”