Jan. 13—After nearly two years of COVID-19, the state's business community is largely back to normal, but is struggling with the quality of the Kansas workforce. That was the finding of the Kansas Chamber's 17th edition of its Annual Business Leaders Poll, released on Jan. 3.

"Each year, the Kansas Chamber asks business leaders from across the state to name the most important issues they face. This year's poll found concerns about the Kansas workforce are skyrocketing," said Kansas Chamber President and CEO Alan Cobb. "Kansas job creators are looking for leadership and solutions to our state's workforce challenges."

CHS & Associates was commissioned to conduct the poll.

Great Bend City Administrator Kendal Francis said this is an issue the city is facing as well.

"We have maybe a dozen openings at any one time and we may get one to two applicants, and usually the quality of those applicants are pretty poor. We struggle mightily to fill these positions," Francis said.

The pattern is repeated in nearly every employment sector in the city.

"It's every business in town, whether it's fast food or CEOs of a (larger) company, people are struggling to hire qualified individuals," Francis said.

Great Bend Chamber of Commerce Director Megan Barfield said the persistent shortages many business face cause a domino effect that eats into the businesses' bottom lines.

"Business owners or those on staff (are forced) to work extra shifts, longer shifts, pick up extra duties, etc," Barfield said. "If a business owner is working the floor, so to speak, that is pulling away from his/her ability to work on their business, which leaves areas of the business neglected: inventory, bookkeeping, marketing. Priorities shift, disrupting the flow of running a business."

According to the Kansas Chamber survey, while more than a third of business leaders statewide plan to increase their staffs during the next year, the quality of the state's workforce is the top issue they face. Nearly half of the survey's 300 respondents are unsatisfied with the available workforce.

No easy solutions

It is an issue Francis said does not have an easy answer, particularly with COVID-related workforce challenges beginning to ease.

However, the Great Bend Chamber is participating in a workforce connections group made up of individuals from Great Bend Economic Development, KansasWorks, WorkforceONE, Barton Community College, Sunrise Staffing, USD 428 and others, in order to address workforce challenges across the community and beyond.

"There are so many variables to the workforce crisis and only so many things any one of us has control over, but what we can do is help our employers by giving them more tools and resources," Barfield said.

One solution area workforce groups is pursuing is a two-day workforce summit planned for April. Barfield called it a spin-off of past job fairs.

"Sessions will be held on Day One for both employers and job seekers. (This will be) packed with education, resources and keynote speakers. Day Two will be the job fair portion of the summit," she said.

Taxation another worry

With rising operating costs in so many areas, CHS & Associates President Pat McFerron said the survey shows taxation is also of particular concern to business owners this year.

"Unemployment compensation concerns climbed into double-digits for the first time as an issue for business profitability because it is seen as a hindrance to people entering the workforce. Limiting the growth of government also is higher than ever and energy costs are the highest since 2013. Ultimately, however, these are all dwarfed by concerns about taxation."

Because of rising consumer good and raw material costs, Barfield said, small businesses particularly are having to shift limited budgets in order to make those budgets stretch farther on less. Because of that, cooperation between policy makers and business organizations is crucial.

"Increased conversations with policy makers and the private sector will and should continue with discussions on how innovative solutions and removing government barriers can help create a business-friendly state," Barfield said. "Supporting a new tax credit for employers who participate in the Kansas Registered Apprenticeship Program would have an impact for education and workforce development."

"The debate about how state government should act to get the economy growing has shifted dramatically. In 2020, it was all about either instituting or not instituting restrictions," said McFerron. "This year the message is clear. Businesses do not want government in the middle of their relationships with their employees as they continue to work to navigate the virus' ongoing impact."

And while COVID concerns among business owners are far less than in last year's survey, Barfield said local businesses still face daily challenges with the virus' impacts to the supply chain, and with staff members out sick with either COVID-19 or Influenza A and B.

Even with that, though, Barfield said elevated retail sales numbers locally indicate businesses have adapted well to the ongoing challenges.

CHS & Associates consulting firm has conducted the Chamber's Annual Business Leaders poll since 2004. The participating businesses reflect company sizes and industry sectors that make up the Kansas business community according to Dun and Bradstreet and are not necessarily members of the Kansas Chamber.


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