Filling the Skills Gap

The mismatch between skill sets of those looking for work and employer needs is getting wider, but higher education is stepping into that breach.

By Dennis Boone

Smart Warehousing in Johnson County is part of a growing regional logistics sector, one where the types of workers needed must bring updated skills to the job.

The December unemployment rate in Johnson County, one of the twin economic engines that power regional commerce, was 3.1 percent. The other half, which tends to not to fire quite as efficiently, is Jackson County on the Missouri side, at 4.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And Wyandotte County, generally the high-water mark for area unemployment, was down to 5.2 percent.

"We’re working to connect with key business leaders across region to understand the new skills that students haven’t been ready with.” — Barbara Bichelmeyer, Provost, UMKC

Those three markers, work-force experts say, are clear evidence that the Kansas City region moved well past a tight labor market, and is approaching labor-crisis territory. It’s something that the construction sector has raised red flags about for nearly two years, but now other sectors are feeling a serious squeeze as nearly everyone qualified to work has a job.

It may not be the job they want, it may not be the hours they want, but they’re working. And yet, the sense that thousands of quality jobs are going unfilled isn’t due entirely to the lack of bodies.
What we’re feeling now is a mismatch between the skill sets that many workers have, and new skills in demand from fast-growth industries.

Here’s why: More and more, even traditional blue-collar roles like vehicle assembly, warehouse operations or construction require the use of computers and robotics. U.S. manufacturing output is at all-time highs in terms of the dollar value of production, but because of technological advances, only a fraction of the manpower is required to produce those yields.

Even in a low-unemployment environment, it’s possible to wring more qualified workers out of the labor pool. But that’s not going to be easy.

“We are in such a low-unemployment phase, but many of the clients coming through our doors are those that have multiple barriers to employment,” says Keely Schneider, executive director of the Workforce Partnership, serving Johnson and Wyandotte counties. “Either they are lower-skilled or have other challenges around maintaining employment.”

As a result, “across our major sectors in the metro area, most of the employers are saying ‘I can’t find who I need.’ Most of who they need is not that first, entry level worker, it’s that next step, someone who is ready to move up in the work force. That mid-skill job.”

That has created a disconnect, she said, because as Millennials flood into the job market at nearly twice the rate of the generation that preceded them, they are overwhelming the numbers of entry-level jobs available, and don’t have the experience to start higher than that. 

Construction was among the first sectors to see this after losing nearly 40 percent of its collective work force during the Great Recession. For three solid years, hiring was almost non-existent in that sector. Which means today, three years later after hiring started to tick back up, there are few people with five years’ experience ready to take on project management or team-management roles.

But that dynamic was not limited to the construction trades. Fifth-year lawyers are in short supply. Same with general and operations managers in almost any sector. Lower numbers of college graduates have led to fewer applications across the job market. Add in the chronically hard-to-fill roles in healthcare, such as nursing and therapy providers, or blue-collar jobs like truck driver or machinists, and magnitude of the challenge facing business becomes more evident.

And if public-policy discussions about immigration fail to address the skilled vs. unskilled aspects correctly, relief isn’t coming from abroad.

This, then, is the backdrop for the one sector most responsible for producing qualified workers: education. It’s truly ironic that at the very time when more knowledge is more freely available to mankind than any in its history, the nation still can’t make the round pegs of labor fit into the square holes of job openings. As a result, education itself, and higher education in particular, are changing at their core.

“I couldn’t agree more on the changing nature of higher education,” says Barbara Bichelmeyer, provost at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “A lot of factors play into why, but we are moving from a historical gate-keeping model or conservatory model of higher education to a bridge-building model.”

For centuries, she noted, the artifacts of civilization were scarce resources, printing presses, paprysus and vellum, and were hard to come by. Now in the digital cloud era, information is ubiquitous, people can digest it anywhere—along with a great deal of misinformation. “We have to help people use it better,” Bichelmeyer said. “And our whole role and value is changing. We’re moving from information repository for country and world to being the group changed with helping people know what do with the information they have.”

Whether at four-year state universities, private colleges or the two-year community colleges that are closest to being able to pivot and address programming changes for skill sets needed by business, these institutions are embracing new kinds of teaching in shorter bursts. Many of the new offerings are non-degree track in nature, intended to add a skill set to people who already have jobs but are looking to improve their chances for promotion or take the first steps onto a new career path.

Employers, said Schneider, “have the minimum-wage job filled, or the one that pays $8-$9 an hour, but these positions do not include post-secondary credentialed worker or folks associate’s degree. We’re not talking about an immediate need for a four-year degree, but a high-quality credential with real value in the marketplace, that people can achieve in a short time frame and puts you on a career path.”

Too many workers today, she said, have jobs that are just OK, but no real path. “they have nowhere to go,” Schneider said. “But they can get that if they go back to school and get another certificate, stack it on another one, and progress further.”

As much as those in her field would like to see workplaces doing more to promote skills development, many have found it more efficient to outsource their training. Some of the disconnect lies in failure to align with programs that will provide the right training and timetable.

“There are great opportunities in areas we know there is future job demand, growing indstries where workers know they will not get laid off again—six to eight weeks of classes, and that can put you back on that path,” Schneider said. 

One example: Transportation logistics, a booming sector in this region for more than a decade, but one that’s on fire right now. “We’re working hard at Logistics Park Kansas City, making sure we have a presence there and showing individuals what that pathway in supply-chain logistics looks like.”

As director of continuing education at Johnson County Community College, Debbie Rulo is charged with overseeing the success of the college’s training programs at the logistics park, a recent initiative meant to do exactly what educators have been talking about—bring new skills to employers where they’re most needed. Logistics Park, she said, “is a very big focus for us at JCCC in the continuing ed branch. But we’re also focusing on commercial-driver training, truck driving, that’s big. We can’t seem to produce enough truck drivers. Nearly 100 percent are hired after or even during clases, and those students are getting some nice jobs.”

The distinguishing characteristic between the new educational model and the old is immediacy. “The individuals who are talking to us now, they need work now,” Rulo said. Companies, too, need labor now, such as forklift drivers and warehouse workers, allied health specialists and IT workers. “And they need a lot of them,” Rulo said. “Those jobs have a path to lead into careers, but I don’t think  a lot of individuals always understand that.”

The Edwards Campus of the University of Kansas, under the leadership of vice chancellor David Cook, has for the past four years pushed toward more credentialing programs, said Carolyn McKnight, Director of Community Relations. “He really was looking at how to serve the a greater Kansas City business community.”

A reflection of that came in 2014, when the university moved its continuing education unit from the main campus in Lawrence to the Edwards site in Overland Park.” The general themes were about the need for soft skills, leadership, how to train staffs, how to implement diversity inclusion,” McKnight said. “They heard what business had to say, and we’re working on that with the faculty and talent at KU.”

 Now, in addition to crediential programs, some custom-created for large employers with immediate needs, KU-Edwards is offering non-credit work-force development programs.

Efforts like those demonstrate how higher education is swinging to meet business needs. But the very nature of the relationship between the two factions is changing, Bichelmeyer said.

“It is definitely changing, and we embrace that at UMKC,” she said. “This one of the fundamental differences between a public urban research university and the more traditional flagship model. We know our job is to serve the city. We know we need to be doing more outreach and listening with the business community to understand what their needs are.”

To that end, she said, Chancellor Leo Morton has championed a greater focus on developing internships for students so they are in better position not just to be hired, but to succeed. “So we’re working to connect with key business leaders across region to understand the new skills that students haven’t been ready with,” Bichelmeyer said. “We need to make them more job- and career-ready by ensuring they understand some of those important lessons: show up on time, dress appropriately, work in a team, communications skills, how to self-manage, make sure they know how to track projects and deliver on time.”

Many of those, educators acknowledge, have been assumed skills by universities, which are picking up the societal slack for failure to make them part of the experience before high school graduation.

That, unfortunately, is another work-force story to be told.

The Recruiting Challenge

  If the employer battle for talent has a campus corollary, the numbers over the past five years suggest that those in private higher education are in a tighter spot than their publicly financed brethren across the two-state region. But Regents schools in Kansas are fighting to hold their ground, as well.

   Based on enrollments through last fall, public universities in Missouri and Kan-sas enjoyed a combined enrollment increase of 4.69 percent since 2011, but that figure was mostly attributable to what’s happening east of the state line. The nine Regents institutions in Kansas were able to muster an increase of 0.66 percent over that five-year run; in Mis-souri, the comparable figure was up 4.7 percent.

   Interestingly enough, Missouri’s smaller publicly funded universities generated all of that increase. That’s because the flagship University of Missouri-Columbia saw enrollments plunge by more than 2,000 from their 2014 peak after the campus unrest in the fall of 2015, and the head count at Mizzou has fallen by more than 420 from its 2011 levels.

   As for private colleges and universities, enrollments were down 3.71 percent in Kansas through 2015 (the latest comprehensive figures available). And in Missouri, where private-school enrollment has long been a greater share of collegiate enrollment than in Kansas, enrollments fell by nearly 6,000, or 4.4 percent, by fall 2016. 

Some of this can be attributed to simple demography; the cohort of 18-year-olds who could enter college last year was 209,000 smaller than its 2009 counterpart. With a healthy 333,000 bump in the population of those turning 18 this year, the figures could start to reverse.