Kelly, Girod discuss efforts to bolster Kansas workforce amid budget concerns

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod, second from left, Secretary of Commerce David Toland, middle, and Gov. Laura Kelly, right, discuss efforts to bolster and retain the state’s workforce during a roundtable discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Lawrence. Photo by: Conner Mitchell

 

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod and Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday stressed the importance of a collaborative effort to improve the state’s workforce after what the two called a “lost decade.”

During that decade, a majority of which was governed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, the state of Kansas fell off the map in a number of key economic categories. Now, agencies are struggling to catch up.

Kelly’s secretary of commerce, David Toland, laid out the sobering statistics during a roundtable discussion with Kelly, Girod and several Lawrence leaders and University of Kansas officials.

The state, he said, ranks 35th in GDP, 34th in overall job growth and 42nd in wage growth.

“We’ve seen where the state was once doing a pretty good job, and doing better than you might expect from a Midwestern state, to where we’re at the bottom of the heap,” Toland said.

The biggest impact of the economic downturn Kansas has seen, Toland said, has been the difficulty in keeping folks who graduate from Kansas colleges in the Sunflower State. The state ranks 11th in the percentage of students who attend an in-state school, but is 44th in retaining them once they get their diploma.

“We’re exporting our most valuable commodity, and we’re doing it at a deficit,” he said.

Girod said the problems Toland highlighted were certainly affecting the university but were also a problem on a national level.

Between a record low unemployment rate, challenges around handling immigration and fewer high school graduates who choose to go to college, higher education in Kansas and across the country is struggling.

“We’ve got a collision coming, and we’re seeing it, but it’s everywhere,” Girod said.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t discussions within the university and the state government on how to handle those problems. Girod emphasized that the university hopes to assist in prioritizing infrastructure for companies to take root before the demand is there.

“It’s really hard to recruit a company and say ‘great, we’ll build it for you, it’ll be ready in two to three years.’ Then they say ‘thank you very much, I have other options.’” he said. “We’re trying to get those pipelines plugged into those businesses. We’ve got a lot of work going on in that area.”

In conjunction with those efforts, Kelly said her administration has taken up the task of revamping the state’s image with the goal of recruiting individuals, businesses and companies to plant their roots in Kansas.

The governor was in Lawrence to deliver a keynote speech to a luncheon for members of the Lawrence chamber of commerce.

The speech highlighted her administration’s efforts to expand education funding and Medicaid, while stressing the importance of developing the state’s workforce. KU, Kelly said, has been a key contributor in those efforts.

“(They) have certainly been a valuable partner,” Kelly said. “And I know that my new budget didn’t have as much of a funding increase for higher education as some universities would have liked … but we are doing our best to satisfy all needs across the state.”

Kelly also voiced some support for turning the western leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway into a four-lane stretch of road.

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