Over the last five years, almost 15,000 workers disappeared from the Kansas workforce.
During the same timeframe, the state is growing economically, with a recent monthly report showing 14,000 jobs created in the last year and unemployment at 3.3%. That’s below the national rate.
Despite the good news, Kansas officials see a long-term challenge: having enough employees to fill the state’s jobs, especially in high-demand careers like nursing and accounting.
The total labor force in Kansas peaked in 2009 at 1.521 million, likely driven by the economic downturn that caused people to enter the labor force who otherwise wouldn’t be working. That tapered off, and by the middle of 2014, Kansas’ workforce was 1.493 million.
By July, the number had fallen to 1.479 million.
There are multiple factors at play, Kansas Department of Labor Senior Labor Economist Tyler Tenbrink said, and it starts with the state population.
“Population growth has been almost zero for a few years now,” he said.
Other factors are delaying people from entering the workforce or causing them to leave it. One thing is age: Many in the baby-boomer generation are retiring or could soon.
There’s also pressure on the younger end of the age scale.
“We also have students who are staying in school longer, so they’re not getting into the labor force as quickly,” Tenbrink said.
Certain industries have greater challenges when it comes to the workforce. In the coming decades, the population of older Kansans is expected to grow faster than the state overall, which will require more workers in health care, a sector that’s already struggling.
The Kansas Hospital Association compiled a report outlining the challenges and noted many jobs with expected shortages, ranging from nurses to nursing assistants and home health aids.
“These are the folks that care for people, that are at the bedside,” KHA Vice President Cindy Samuelson said.
To try to tackle the problem, hospitals are partnering with colleges and universities to find ways to let people know there are good-paying careers in demand. Many positions just require a two-year degree, and people can work in the industry while training for a future higher position.
It’s not always as simple as advertising for good-paying jobs. Some hospitals are working to recruit outside of Kansas, but sometimes those workers don’t stay for the long term. It’s led some to find and train local hires, which is what Samuelson calls “growing your own.”
“There is a lot of cost associated with training and getting that person up to speed, and if they’re only there a short amount of years there is a loss,” she said.
It’s a tough nut to crack, and Kansas Labor Secretary Delía García wants state officials to make it a focus by working more closely with education and business groups to train workers while also having lawmakers and officials craft economic development programs to target the problem by attracting people.
“We are in good shape in Kansas, we are stable,” García said. “But we also want to be looking forward.”
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda or email skoranda (at) ku (dot) edu.
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