Girod: Universities, businesses need to work together to produce more Kansas workers
photo by: Dylan Lysen
Kansas universities and local businesses need to work together to help meet one another’s needs, University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod said Wednesday.
As enrollment has dropped and tuition has increased at Kansas universities in recent years, businesses throughout the state have struggled with a worker shortage because not enough graduates possess the required skills, he said.
“What we hear from you all is that we need to give you more, but we don’t have the students to give you right now,” Girod said to an audience made up of the chambers of commerce for Lawrence, Manhattan, Emporia and Topeka and members of the local business community.
During the METL workforce conference in Lawrence, Girod, Kansas State University President Richard Myers and Emporia State University President Allison Garrett asked the local business community what their institutions could do to help those businesses fill positions.
METL is a coalition of chambers of commerce for Manhattan, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence and aims to connect the four communities and their missions. The coalition will hold similar workforce conferences in the other three communities as well.
Girod said part of the reason universities did not produce enough talented workers for Kansas businesses was because fewer state students were enrolling in universities because of the cost, which has been increasing faster than inflation. Additionally, the average college graduate changes jobs seven times throughout a career.
“How do you prepare a student for that?” he said.
Universities may need to focus on teaching “soft skills,” he said. Among those skills are the ability to collaborate and to communicate clearly.
Historically, businesses have provided employee training for those skills, but it no longer makes as much sense to do so because employees are no longer likely to work the same job for 20 years, Girod said.
“Their expectation is that we should be providing that, and I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “In terms of how we think about doing that, though, it is those experiential learning opportunities that are really big and we can work much more closely with our business partners to create opportunities for our students.”
Experiential learning may include internships and co-op working opportunities, which is a longer-term internship, for students. Those opportunities locally could also help Kansas graduates to take jobs in the area and help the state keep its own educated workforce, Girod said.
Kevin Loos, engineering and maintenance manager for the Lawrence location of ICL Performance Products, said the universities may need to expand what it means to offer those opportunities. He said engineering candidates who are recent graduates are now expected to have had an internship, but schools may need to focus on sending students to co-ops instead. Co-ops allow students to work for a company for a period of six months rather than just three, he said.
“It’s hard to learn about somebody in three months,” he said. “I think some of it is just restructuring your classes and how you get people out in the workforce more during their college career so they know what they want to do when they come out and employers have a good feel of who they are.”
He said not having those opportunities in Kansas universities has stopped ICL Performance Products from hiring local graduates.
Anne Baughman of LMH Health, the Lawrence hospital, said that responsibility may also be on the businesses themselves.
“We really have to get the message out better to the students of what opportunities we have,” she said. “I don’t think we are getting the message out well enough that health care is not just about nurses and physicians.”
Loos said his industry also looks for candidates with diverse educational backgrounds, such as degrees in engineering and business.
“The more ability they have to do multiple things … that’s huge for us,” Loos said. “We don’t want to just hire an electrical engineer. We want to hire somebody that can drive home the most efficient project, and the more they can do, the better they are for that $100,000 or whatever we are paying them.”
Two people in the local business community who attended the conference also suggested that universities need to educate college students on what a job in their field of study will actually be like.
Sandy Dixon, general manager for Plastikon Healthcare, cited a disconnect between what students are learning and how they apply it in the field. She said her company has had people realize they don’t like the profession after a few months on the job.
Peter Steimle, advertising and recruitment specialist for the Journal-World and an organizer of Lawrence job fairs, said a problem he saw in job fairs was that job seekers did not have a real understanding of what jobs would be like. He said better advertising could help, but he asked the universities to add courses to provide that education.
But adding courses may be difficult, Girod said, noting that universities are trying to graduate students in four years and that the average college students works part time along with studying.
“When you think of all this additional programming and additional resources, getting it to the students who need it is really challenging because they are busy just trying to get through school and pay the bills,” Girod said.
Myers said he did not think providing that programming was the responsibility of a university. He said a better way to address that issue was through partnerships with local businesses.
While the conversation mostly focused on how universities and business can work together to benefit the workforce, Girod said the businesses could also help the universities in the Legislature. He did not cite specific issues the universities needed help on, but Kansas universities have seen a significant decrease in state funding in recent years.
He said higher education leaders did not carry tremendous weight with lawmakers but that the business community did.
“There is a element of responsibility for success around this on the business community to collaborate on this, but also to help make sure the education systems in the state can provide them with what they need,” he said.