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The Kansas Workforce:
Employer Assessment

Prepared for
Kansas Inc.

M. Elizabeth Stella, Associate Scientist
Charles E. Krider, Professor of Business
Ronald A. Ash, Professor of Human Resource Management

January 1997
Report No. 233

Charles E. Krider
Professor, School of Business
Director, Institute for Public Policy and Business Research


In 1989, an IPPBR/Kansas, Inc, study asked employers to assess the skills of the Kansas workforce, both basic academic skills and other skills needed to meet job requirements. Firms reported that employees needed to improve skills. Since that time, many changes have occurred in the way of work performed and in the way students are educated. Have changes in education produced students who enter the workforce with skills that match job-skill requirements? Has the rapid pace of technological change outstripped the rate of improvement in workers' skills? The purpose of the present study was to survey owners or managers of Kansas firms to determine whether employers' perceptions of the Kansas workforce changed from 1989 to 1996.


A telephone survey (similar to that conducted in 1989) asked 600 Kansas firms questions about the training and competence of new hires and present employees, future training requirements, and the utilization and quality of training programs. Firms surveyed represented manufacturers and nonmanufacturers, firms of different sizes (small, medium, and large), and firms in different settings (rural, mid-sized, and urban counties).


The results of the survey confirmed that employers needed employees with good basic skills (reading, writing, computation), technical skills, and work habits. Finding workers with these skills has become increasingly difficult and will become even more difficult in the next two to three years. Skill requirements for entry-level jobs increased over the past five years, but skills of newly-hired employees have not kept pace. Employers described the gap between job requirements and workers' qualifications as slight to moderate and predicted that the gap would increase. Firms also predicted that technological changes would increase the level of technical skills required.

High school graduates were not adequately prepared to add productive value to firms. While high school students' skills were less than adequate in meeting business' needs, employers reported that they were satisfied with those trained at community colleges, AVTSs, and universities. When asked what skills newly-hired employees needed to improve, employers focused upon basis skills (listening/oral communication, writing, computation), thinking skills (problem solving, decision making, comprehension, creative thinking, willingness to learn), and personal qualities (work habits, goal setting/personal motivation, leadership, teamwork, interpersonal relations, adaptability). Technical skills, such as computer and business/management skills, also needed improvement. Employers also reported that current employees needed to improve skills. To help improve employee skills, approximately half the firms used technical/vocational training programs in the past five years and most paid for that training. Most firms would consider paying higher wages, up to 10 percent more, to workers with higher skills.


That workers' skills do not meet job-skill requirements was the overriding finding of the report. The pace of change, driven by technological advances and changes in how work was organized, continued to outstrip the rate at which workers' skills improved. Educators, employers, and employees have been chasing, and will continue to chase, a moving target. This has serious implications for Kansas and requires a serious, committed response at all levels of private and public activity.

1. Development of a highly-skilled workforce must continue to be a strategic objective for Kansas economic development.

The workforce is a state strength, but it is also a weakness. Kansas does not have a large reservoir of unemployed or underemployed skilled workers. In fact, regional shortages of skilled workers exist. Similar shortages exist nationwide, so the state cannot solve labor shortages or skill deficits by importing labor from other states. Ways must be found to better utilize the existing population. Skills must be improved through training and retraining and those not currently in the work force must be encouraged to enter or re-enter the labor market. Employers must commit resources to train and retrain their current amployees, both in basic academic skills and technical skills.

The state's education and training system must have the institutional capability to provide training for workers to upgrade existing, and develop new, skills as job-skill requirements change. Institutions must have the capability to meet the workforce's training needs, from the production worker who needs to improve communication and math skills to the computer programmer or engineer who needs to keep abreast of cutting-edge technology. The state must have a quality educational system that includes K-12, technical training and associate degree programs, baccalaureate programs, and post-graduate programs, to produce and maintain the quality workforce needed by Kansas businesses which must do business in the new, competitive, global economy. Post-secondary institutions, especially community colleges, must encourage employers and employees to access training to improve basic academic skills and technical skills by providing classes that meet the needs of nontraditional students and customized training that meets the needs of businesses. Educators and government officials must focus upon removing barriers created by a fragmented training system. Duplication of training within the training system must be reduced so savings that result can be used to provide advanced equipment for training programs.

Current workforce problems will require both private and public action to solve existing and future challenges, but that can happen because Kansas has a history of solving problems through private-public cooperation. Employers, workers, parents of students, students, educators, and government officials at the community as well as the state level must understand that their prosperity depends upon their commitment to developing a skilled workforce. Employers must commit resources to train and retrain their current employees, both in basic academic skills and technical skills. Students, supported by parents and educators, must develop good work attitudes and habits in school and transfer those skills to the workplace. Students, and their parents, must also realize that post-secondary training is essential, and life-long learning will be necessary to develop new and upgrade existing technical skills. While college education is not required for all, some form of technical/vocational training in apprenticeship programs or at community colleges and AVTSs is required.

2. Educators, supported by parents and employers, must provide business and industry with workers who add productive value to the firms which employ them.

Educators, supported by parents and employers, must continue to improve curriculum, focus on educational outcomes, and demand high standards for high school graduation. The K-12 education system should continue to focus upon improving the skills of its students. Business needs students to develop competency in basic skills (e.g., reading, writing, computation, communication), thinking skills (e.g., problem solving, decision making, etc.), and personal qualities (e.g., work habits, teamwork, etc.). Schools should continue to focus upon outcome measures and make certain high standards are set. Students seeking a high school diploma must meet high performance standards and demonstrate competency in a set of basic skills, thinking skills, and personal work habits. The curriculum must not be too loose and undemanding or the average student will not be prepared to meet the increasingly sophisticated needs of business and industry. The K-12 system must prepare noncollege-bound students for post-secondary technical training and associate degree programs as well as it prepares students who seek admission to four-year baccalaureate programs.

3. Business and industry needs to communicate job skill requirements to educators on a continuous basis.

Business must communicate to educators what job skills are required. While donating funds or items to support academic and extracurricular activities is important, the role of business could evolve toward providing more frequent and effective support and feedback to teachers and educators. Educators need to know more about the quality of the product they produce (i.e., the students). Is the client (i.e., the employer) happy with the quality of the product or (if it were like other products) would it be returned for repairs or replacement? How well prepared are average students to enter the workplace? Are they prepared to go to work, or are they entering the work world lost and unprepared?

Schools get frequent and useful feedback about the performance of their college-bound students through college entrance exam scores and college placement rates. Similar feedback is not available for noncollege-bound students. Educators and the business community in each school district should consider what this lack of feedback is costing the community. Are businesses less competitive due to poorly-trained workers? If businesses become less competitive and fail, what is the loss to the school district in terms of lost revenue? When these costs are examined, perhaps both educators and businesses will realize effective, working partnerships which provide feedback and improve training are a good investment. Information exchange should focus upon how the nature of work is changing--what impact technology or new management practices have on job skill requirements.

4. The business community and the education system must commit to developing effective business-education partnerships.

Business-education partnerships should be created and strengthened in every community in Kansas. What is an effective working partnership? Each community must decide what works. However, several elements should be considered. The partnerships must evolve so the K-12 education system does not continue to produce graduates who add little productive value to the firms which employ them. Business-education partnerships must focus upon developing technical preparation programs and school-to-work programs that produce students who are ready to enter the labor market with skills needed by employers. This will require the business community to become more familiar with current educational practices and teachers to become more familiar with the workplace. Are teachers familiar with and comfortable in non-educational work settings? Can teachers participate in summer programs, internships, or sabbatical programs in business and industry that prepare them to train students for high-skill, high-wage jobs? Do teachers (and their students) have access to hands-on experiences in business and industrial settings? Do teachers get credit, in terms of promotion, salary etc., for such training in the same way that they get credit for attending education classes at colleges and universities? Are there communities in this state and in neighboring states where business-education partnerships are providing this type of information exhange and teacher support? Other communities may find it useful to examine how those partnerships evolved so they can begin to develop effective partnerships in their own communities.

5. Inform students and parents of post-secondary training options.

Parents and students must realize that some form of post-secondary education or training is essential and that many options are available. For students who do not wish to enter a four-year degree program, other options must be available and well publicized. Guidance counselors must be prepared to help these students and their parents learn about school-to-work programs, apprenticeship programs, two-year associate degree programs, and technical training programs. Students must have available to them a coordinated system which provides quality training and allows credit for training in one part of the system (e.g., community college) to count in another part of the system (e.g., university) as their training goals change. As clients of the education system, students should be assured that the system will be flexible enough to recognize skills developed on the job and not require training or course work in areas where competency already exists.

6. Create techprep programs, school-to-work programs, and apprenticeship programs that are academically sound and linked to the business world.

Businesses and industries in desperate need of more qualified workers and unhappy with new recruits from the state's secondary schools must support and invest in training high school students through apprenticeship programs and other programs that link school to jobs. Teachers and employers must work together to develop courses that develop necessary skills and demand high performance levels. Working together, employers and teachers can share information and solve problems regarding curriculum (i.e., what skills need to be trained), performance evaluation (i.e., student grades), quality issues (i.e., how to improve low grades or unacceptable performance). Involvement at the level of the teacher, not just at the level of the administrator (e.g., principal or state curriculum planning committees), may benefit all. Businesses communicate their needs directly, teachers get support, and students are given a reason to learn by making their academic courses relevant to their lives and focused upon the need for quality performance.

The state has been moving too slowly in this area. Lack of or weak tech-prep programs contribute to the serious gap between job-skill requirements and the skills of the young worker. Every school district should have a serious, high-quality tech-prep program by the year 2000. Tech-prep programs are not old vo-tech programs with new names. Serious, high-quality tech programs should be linked to two-year technical training or associate degree programs so students receive the post-secondary technical training that current and future jobs require.

7. Support Adult Basic Education (ABE) to enable those who have already left the education system improve their basic skills.

Many workers or potential workers in Kansas have basic skills (reading, math, writing, communication) which are under- or undeveloped. These people may have graduated many years ago, may have completed high school last year, may have dropped out of high school, or may be entering the job market because of welfare reform. ABE programs need to be a higher priority in Kansas. Instead of asking what is the least amount of state dollars needed to receive Federal supports for these programs, the state needs to adopt a more strategic view and invest at levels that address the need for ABE created by older workers as well as welfare reform and school drop-outs. Currently, ABE programs focus upon those preparing to take GED tests. Resources barely meet those needs, so programs have difficulty serving those who need to upgrade basic skills but do not need a GED. With adequate funding, ABE programs provide support for those seeking to improve basic skills.

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