David Cook: KC workforce is solid, but better-tailored education can pay off

David Cook: KC workforce is solid, but better-tailored education can pay off

A recent program by the Mid-America Regional Council and the Lumina Foundation opened some eyes on the mismatch between Kansas City’s workforce needs and the human resource needs of business and industry.

The good news, according to research presented at the Greater Kansas City Workforce Summit, is that the education level of the region’s workforce is slightly higher than the national average and compares favorably with peer communities. A third of adults in our region have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with the national average of 29 percent, for example.

On the other hand, “The demand for educated workers in the region exceeds supply,” the report says. “Currently, 40 percent of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, and that number is expected to grow.”

Even with the good news that the region is strong with bachelor’s degrees, “The strongest job growth is expected in occupations that require associate or graduate/postgraduate degrees,” the report said. To excel, high school graduates will want a two-year associate degree; college graduates will want a master’s degree or other postgraduate education.

The report says the region’s “education-to-jobs mismatch is particularly evident in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.” Students and job seekers exploring career paths, take note: The fastest-growing occupations in the region will be in the finance, computer, architecture/engineering, life sciences, logistics and heavy manufacturing industries.

In higher education, we see both opportunities and challenges in this report.

The opportunities are obvious. STEM is hot these days, even in elementary and secondary schools, and colleges will continue to offer programs and degrees focused on these valuable marketplace skills.

For its part, KU Edwards Campus has added several degree programs in engineering, technology, science and business through the Johnson County Education Research Triangle, a voter-approved taxing entity aimed at creating an economic impact of $1.4 billion over the next two decades.

KU also has joined forces with Johnson County Community College and Johnson County school districts — a unique partnership of three educational levels — in a program called Degree in 3. Like similar programs throughout the region and nationwide, this one helps students get a bachelor’s degree in three years and helps business by closing more quickly the tech-talent gap reported in the MARC study.

The key challenge, on the other hand, is to keep the purpose of education in focus.

Scholars have many views, of course, but most would agree an education ought to be more than vocational training. An educated person ought to be able to think innovatively, solve problems efficiently, be a responsible citizen and understand the importance of history, philosophy, the arts and the humanities to the betterment of humankind.

Education at every level must be a crucible of learning where students can explore ideas, identify their passions and dream the unimaginable. It is important we balance that with the need to fill a shortage of technicians, engineers and programmers.

Education, business and government must strike a balance so that well-rounded, literate and passionate citizens fill the workforce needs of business and industry. We are fortunate in Kansas City to have insightful leadership committed to a collaboration of civic, industry and educational efforts for a better — and better-educated — community.

David Cook is vice chancellor at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus in Overland Park.

Story by David Cook, Kansas City Star