Train and Retain: Kansas higher education commits to skills, innovation and credentials for workforce needs

Quality control worker analyzing machine part on a manufacturing machine.


Susan Hancock has a unique position in the overall U.S. higher education system, a position recognized by the Brookings Institution as a national best practice.

business group of people

As the director of workforce training and education for the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the higher education system in the state, Hancock also spends half of her time working for the Kansas Department of Commerce in regard to workforce-related initiatives.

“We are fortunate the state wants to invest in this position,” Hancock says. “What is really strong about the workforce development pipeline in Kansas is the collaborations across not just the Board of Regents and related postsecondary institutions but also partnerships with the private sector.”

“It matters when you have a state government that seeks to build an active workforce and is willing to invest, whether it is in projects like Workforce AID or in initiatives like the University Engineering Initiative Act,” says Kansas Board of Regents’ Director of Communications Breeze Richardson. “There is a demonstrated effort toward investing in this population, educating the population, and giving employers what they need.”

Workforce Aligned with Industry Demand (Workforce AID) is a program where the state pays 50 percent of worker training costs, with employers picking up the rest. These short, targeted training programs are developed with local community colleges or universities.

An example of Workforce AID’s success is seen in support of trucking firms in the state and the assistance firms received to fill their need for skilled preventative maintenance inspectors. Hancock says Ryder System, TransAm Trucking, Butler Transport, Freightliner, and Peterbilt worked with the department of commerce and Kansas City Community College to develop training; training which has been offered multiple times.

Hancock says the companies, although competitors, looked beyond their individual needs to create a pipeline for the industry overall. Richardson adds the trainees earned portable skills credentials. “We are holistically working with the educational institutions of the state to provide a meaningful credential for that employee,” Richardson says. “The program (Workforce AID) is only a few years old but it is really showing a very valuable way that the public education system can deliver for employers.”

The Board of Regents and its partners have worked with industries to align 26 academic programs across the state’s 19 community colleges and six technical colleges to create a seamless training process, where students can start training at one institution and finish at another institution if needed.

Innovative synergies

Workforce-related stakeholders also understand the importance of educating, attracting and retaining engineers to support the state’s leading industries, including aviation and advanced manufacturing, alternative energy and biosciences.

In 2012, the state’s legislature passed the University Engineering Initiative Act, a 10-year plan where the state “is matching $100 million in investments in the three engineering programs we have in the state,” Richardson says. “When we talk about four-year degrees and beyond there are some specialties Kansas has carved out and engineering is one.”

The more than $200 million invested in the expansion of the engineering programs at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, and Wichita State University has resulted in increased enrollment in these programs. “This is a great example, when it comes to one particular industry, of how we are committed as a state to growing new engineers,” Richardson says.

Expansion activities at the engineering programs include $80 million in 135,000-sq.ft. at KU, which consists of two separate buildings; the department of commerce contributed $35 million for the project.

The efforts to build the engineering pipeline are getting noticed. In June, Rubrik announced it would hire a mix of 20 new and experienced engineers to staff its Rubrik Center of Excellence at the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU’s West Campus in Lawrence. The Palo Alto, California-based manager of data for users of cloud computing services believes its center of excellence will be a hub of research, innovation, and training in the Midwest, according to company officials.

Moving west to Manhattan, according to the K-State engineering school’s website, the Engineering Hall expansion project has created 108,000-sq.ft. of instructional, research and office space, allowing for the consolidation of multiple functions to one location.

In Wichita, engineers are vital to the region’s legacy industry: aviation. Among other companies, the city is home to Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation. Innovation is vital to the city’s future development and WSU’s leaders have embraced innovation as the core to their community, Richardson says, with the establishment of the WSU Innovation Campus.

The 120-acre campus features office space, labs and mixed-use developments, including The Flats apartment complex. According to reports, a new 45,000-square-foot building will feature space for lease to companies and organizations interested in partnering with WSU, particularly those interested in hiring students.

In April 2017, the 18,000-square-foot GoCreate maker space opened, which is located in the Experiential Engineering Building at the innovation campus, where members of all ages can access the services.

In March of last year, a partnership was announced between Boston Consulting Group and WSU, which aims to increase collaboration and advance Wichita’s manufacturing industry. According to a press release, WSU will access BCG’s expertise on digital operations, and the company will benefit from the university’s extensive advanced manufacturing resources.

During the 2017 legislative session, legislators passed legislation that allows Wichita State University and Wichita Area Technical College to pursue an affiliation, which would form one institution, creating a GED to Ph.D. pipeline, Richardson notes. “It is really carving out an important niche in Wichita and really speaks nicely to the needs of industry. This is an investment that is transforming how this institution is delivering education and it will affect industry for decades to come.”


This article originally published in Kansas: From the Heart of America.


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