Guest Commentary

KU chancellor: Education, local business cooperation key to future of KC workforce

Douglas A. Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas
Douglas A. Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas

In recent years, Kansas City has strengthened its status among the nation’s dynamic metropolitan economies. But regional growth is hampered by the lack of a sufficient workforce to meet the needs of our growing economy. Unless we grow the pool of skilled workers, our companies will stall or relocate to regions with more talent.

To address these workforce challenges, Kansas City community leaders have launched several initiatives. These include KC Rising, as well as the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, which empowers the University of Kansas and Kansas State University to tailor programs to regional workforce needs through the KU Clinical Research Center, the KU Edwards Campus and the K-State Olathe campus. While these efforts have helped, there remains a crucial workforce shortage in the region, and it impedes our growth.

Given this context, the demand for college graduates in Kansas City has never been greater. During the next decade, half of all jobs in Kansas City will require an associate’s degree or more advanced degree, and 75 percent of top jobs will require a postsecondary credential. The combination of low unemployment and ever-changing workplaces increases the need for higher education to address workforce shortages.

Meanwhile, higher education faces unprecedented challenges of its own, starting with enrollment. Nationally, college enrollment has declined for 10 straight years and is expected to decline further in the next decade. This is the result of demographic factors — including lower birthrates and larger populations of first-generation and underrepresented minority students, who face unique barriers to education — as well as rising tuition propelled by decreased state investment in public universities.

On top of enrollment challenges, higher education is grappling with new teaching methods and technologies, as well as evolving expectations from students and employers. Today’s graduates are projected to change careers seven times during their lives. Higher education must embrace the opportunity to respond to employees’ need for ongoing learning.

The bottom line: Regions that produce and retain talent will grow. Regions without talent will decline. Now is the time for a renewed partnership among the business community, government and higher education to address workforce needs. I propose the following strategies:

▪  Increase collaboration between employers and higher education. To strengthen our workforce, Kansas City companies must define the skills they need employees to have, provide real-world learning opportunities and aggressively recruit talented graduates. Meanwhile, universities must work side by side with business leaders, seek their input to ensure that higher education is preparing students for careers and invest in new degrees and education pathways.

▪  Increase investment in higher education. Elected officials must acknowledge our workforce crisis and begin reinvesting in training future employees. In Kansas, annual state funding for KU has declined $28 million since 2008, which severely hampers our ability to stabilize tuition and prepare students for careers. This trend must be reversed. Elected officials must understand that an investment in education is an investment in our workforce.

▪  Market the Kansas City region. We unquestionably have the infrastructure to attract and retain talent. Given that, we need business leaders, elected officials and higher education leaders to aggressively market Kansas City to talented students and graduates who are considering attending college or advancing their career here. Our region has much to offer, and we need to make sure talented individuals nationwide know it.

I embrace higher education’s mission to educate leaders who will drive our economy and improve the world. And I am confident that a renewed partnership among business leaders, elected officials and higher education can create the workforce Kansas City needs to thrive.

Douglas A. Girod is chancellor of the University of Kansas, a surgeon, and a former co-chair of the KC Rising initiative. Email him at kuchancellor@ku.edu

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