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Kansas Grapples With College-Educated Brain Drain Analysis Warns About Looming Shortage of Knowledge Workers

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Above image credit: An aerial photo shows the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. (Nick Krug | The Lawrence Journal-World via AP)
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10 minute read

When Frank Russell graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in mechanical engineering, he had a specific type of company in mind. 

“I didn’t want a huge corporate gig where there’s thousands of people and I was just a number on a spreadsheet, but I also didn’t want a really small like mom-and-pop shop,” Russell said. 

Russell ended up finding what he was looking for in at Texas AirSystems in Austin – not too far from where he grew up in Dallas. 

It could have ended differently. 

“I actually had an offer earlier for a job in Kansas City, but the salary wasn’t nearly at what I was expecting or wanted to be at,” Russell said. 

Russell isn’t alone. 

Although many Kansas graduates move to the Kansas City area, Kansas is not keeping enough workers to meet demand over the next decade. In fact, Kansas will be 34,000 educated workers short of meeting expected demand, according to a September 2023 report published by the Kansas Board of Regents. 

Donna Ginther, author of the report, is an economics professor at the University of Kansas and the director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research. Ginther said in an interview that Kansas is graduating enough workers to meet demand, but comparatively low wage prospects from companies based in Kansas are forcing out workers in high-wage and high-education industries. 

“We send a lot of our undergraduates to Denver, Dallas, Chicago,” Ginther said. “You know, most stay in the state, and so you’ll see a high concentration on either side of the state line in the Kansas City metro, and I count that as a win.” 

Ginther’s report analyzed data from six different states, including Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska in addition to Kansas. For almost every major industry area, including engineering, computer science and math, humanities and arts, and social sciences, Kansas pays either the lowest or second-lowest salary on average. The only exception is the education industry, where Kansas falls into the middle of the pack. 

“The future of the workforce involves skill,” Ginther said. “The state is spending millions of dollars on apprenticeship programs. And we do need technical workers. We need plumbers. We need trained construction workers. But, if we’re going to have the economy of the 21st century, we also need to retain the skilled workers that we do produce.” 

The Report 

Over the next decade, Kansas is projected to add 54,000 jobs that require a post-secondary degree. Add 180,000 jobs that will need to be replaced due to retirees, and Kansas will need more than 234,000 workers to keep up with demand, according to the report. 

However, the report’s analysis says that between new graduations, migration in and out of Kansas, and people going back to school after joining the workforce, Kansas will only be able to fill about 200,000 of those job vacancies. 

Kansas is generating enough college graduates to meet demand, but it is not keeping enough of them to meet demand. Only 186,000 new post-secondary graduates are expected to stay in Kansas over the next decade. 

The recommendation of the report is to retain Kansas graduates – 26% more, in fact – rather than attract out-of-state workers to Kansas. Ginther said that strategy makes the most economic sense. 

“There is a lower cost in retention than there is in recruitment,” Ginther said. “It’s hard to pick up and move, but if people are already here, they’re choosing to pick up and move, right? So we need to give (graduates) reasons to stay.” 

Convincing graduates to stay, however, can be challenging. On top of having comparatively low wages, Ginther said that many people are leaving the state due to a lack of amenities in Kansas. 

“We send a lot of our undergraduates to Denver, Dallas, Chicago.”

– Donna Ginther, economics professor at the University of Kansas and director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research

“There might be a reason to go to Colorado because they have mountains in Colorado,” Ginther said. “There aren’t as many amenities in Dallas relative (to Colorado), but it is a bigger labor market and a bigger city.” 

It’s not just the wages, though, according to Donnavan Dillon, an organizer with Loud Light. Dillon, who is also a college student at the University of Kansas, said that political and cultural factors are also at play. 

“In the seven, eight years I’ve been involved in Kansas politics, I don’t think it’s ever been a welcoming place for me being a young person, whether that’s like from afar or like literally meeting face to face with legislators,” Dillon said. “I don’t think they look at college-age students as self- sufficient, and I think that is contributing to why so many people are leaving.” 

Ginther’s report didn’t touch on social and cultural factors – something she was hesitant to address because it’s not only hard to quantify with data, it also wouldn’t entirely explain movement. 

“(Social and cultural factors) wouldn’t explain Texas, right? Texas is even more draconian than Kansas,” Ginther said. “You can’t get an abortion in Texas. Maybe these trends will change, but I would imagine that being a welcoming, open, inclusive society matters.” 

Still, Dillon said that, especially now, young people demand progress – a statement that is backed by an analysis from the Pew Research Center

“I don’t think the state prioritizes its future and realizes that its future is young people,” Dillon said. “Even across partisan lines, young people have a floor of progress that should be met, whether that’s in regard to the environment, whether or not in regards like civic participation, voting, whether that’s in regards to policy.” 

What about Kansas City? 

Many graduates from Kansas move to the Kansas City metro, and for good reason – almost a third of jobs in Kansas are in the Kansas City metro, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Kansas City’s economy is unique in that it’s almost evenly divided between two different states. Chris Kuehl, chief economist at Armada, an economic intelligence firm based in the Kansas City area, said that companies crossing the state border to reap tax benefits is not uncommon. 

“Both the governors, over the years, have tried to diminish that activity to a degree, but it’s very hard to do,” Kuehl said. “If you’re a company and you can save a bundle of money by moving across the street, and I remember watching firms literally cross State Line Road. People are just carrying their boxes across the street.” 

Individual workers can do the same. 

However, whether workers going to Kansas City is good for the Kansas economy is a point of contention between economists and legislators. Just under half of jobs in the Kansas City metro are based in Kansas.  

Sean Tarwater (R), a Kansas state representative from Johnson County and the chair of the Commerce, Labor, and Economic Development Committee in the Kansas House, said in an interview that growth in Kansas City doesn’t help if a person is living and paying income tax in Missouri. However, Tarwater said that STAR bonds would certainly help to build up the Kansas City, Kansas, area – a strategy now being deployed to entice the Chiefs and Royals to move across the state line. 

“We’re investing a lot of money in the Legends area to build that up for the World Cup,” Tarwater said. “We anticipate that that would be popular for the younger crowd to want to live around and so, similar to what they’re doing in, you know, the lure of Kansas City, Missouri, we are getting there. It’s a large investment, but a lot of it has to do with the nightlife and things that (are) the fun things to do for the younger crowd and the graduates.” 

Jason Probst (D), a Kansas state representative from Hutchinson and the ranking minority member of the Commerce Committee in the Kansas House, agrees. Probst said that as someone from a mid-sized town in Kansas, he would like to figure out a way for cities like Hutchinson to attract graduates. 

“Being from a mid-sized town, I definitely am personally interested in seeing towns the size of Hutchinson be able to attract more people and for us to create more mechanisms that bring people to this part of the state as well,” Probst said. “But I think anything that pulls somebody into Kansas, that grows our population (and) adds to our investment in the state is better whether they move to Wichita or whether they move to the Kansas City metro area.” 

Kuehl, however, believes that towns like Hutchison have a harder time attracting people due to a lack of amenities. 

“Wichita, I think, is fairly competitive when it comes to (amenities), but you’re going to have people who are going to look at all sorts of factors beyond just the job market,” Kuehl said. “If they get a good job, that’s one thing. But then they’re going to turn around and say: ‘Yeah, but you know, how close is the airport? What are the schools like? Where are my kids going to play? What kind of entertainment options are there?’ Kansas City is kind of a mecca in that respect.” 

Talk about Taxes 

With retention, there are just as many proposed solutions as there are answers. That doesn’t mean they’re being enacted, however. 

Ginther’s report recommended that employers raise wages, the legislature improve the college readiness of high school students and provide money for loan forgiveness in fields of high demand. 

Probst said that there has been little action on this issue during the last legislative session, something he chalks up to being the session before an election year. 

“What gets attention (at the) legislature each session is determined by so many different things. This year, the bulk of the energy seemed to be around taxes and tax policy and what we were going to do there,” Kuehl said. “I mean, this is a very numbers and very policy heavy discussion, and during an election year, people tend to want to talk about taxes, the bigger social issues, things that they can use in a campaign. It’s hard to turn some of this information into things that work well in an election year, I guess.” 

Tarwater did not dispute that that little had been done to help retain young people. However, Tarwater said that several bills passed by the Kansas Legislature, such as the Kansas Adult Learner Act, a bill which provides $3,000 per semester for an adult to go back to school, will help. 

“It’s for people that are 25 or older that want to get back into school,” Tarwater said. “There’s a large demographic of people that started but didn’t finish, and we’re trying to target them to say, ‘Hey, look, we know it’s hard, and we know that it’s hard to find finances, and so we’re willing to go ahead and pay for your education.’” 

Tarwater, however, said that the most important part of getting young people to stay was attracting jobs and wages that young people want. 

“(Companies) need to pay what the going rate is, and I think that’s an issue,” Tarwater said. “I don’t know that there’s anything we can do legislatively to keep people in state, other than if we help them with tuition assistance, we should demand that they stay here for a certain period of time.” 

When it comes to loan forgiveness, Tarwater says that although the government is helping with high-income industries, companies also need to step up and help. Kansas currently has student loan forgiveness programs for the health care and teaching industries, as well as for those who buy a house in rural Kansas

Both Tarwater and Probst also said that companies just need to pay more in wages if they wish to keep a solid workforce. 

“There’s only so much that government can do,” Probst said. “If we do something like create a tax credit to encourage companies to pay more, then we’re using taxpayer money to subsidize what business should be doing on itself. There’s a cost to doing business. There’s a cost to retaining good employees and qualified employees, and I think we’re starting to see pretty with quite a bit of clear evidence that the business community has not been willing to pay its employees what the market demands.” 

Kuehl, however, said it’s easy for legislators to tell companies to raise wages.  

“In order to attract industries, they have to figure out what it is that industry is most motivated by,” Kuehl said. “Manufacturers are really interested in transportation. Everything they do is heavy, so they need access to rail. They need good transportation, which we do have, (but) they’re also much more interested in the labor force, and they need people who are trained to do the kind of things they need done.” 

“I hope to one day, depending on where school takes me, return and raise a family here. I really enjoy the community that I grew up in. I just hope that outside forces don’t like shape that community in a negative way.”

– Donnavan Dillon, a student at the University of Kansas

However, ‘pay more’ is something that Mitch Robinson has been telling companies that want to come to Kansas. 

Robinson is the president of the Kansas Economic Development Alliance, which advocates for regional economic development groups. Robinson is also the executive director of the Salina Community Development Organization in Kansas. 

“When we have people come in and start talking to us, and I’m sure all my counterparts across the state have very similar discussions, (the questions are) where am I going to get my workforce? What am I going to have to pay?” Robinson said. “(The workforce) is going to be coming from the local community. So it’s going to require somebody to pay more, or at least close to the average wage.” 

For existing industries in Kansas, however, Robinson said that paying more is just the cost of doing business. 

“Those folks are seeing that competitive situation where they have to be paying a higher wage,” Robinson said. “Everyone’s seen across the country, really, with economics to keep good people and to get people, you’re having to buff your wages up. So generally, it’s the cost of doing business.”  

Dillon, who grew up in Kansas, is the exact type of person who Kansas wants to retain with these policies – and he plans to raise a family in Kansas once he’s done with schooling.  

“I hope to one day, depending on where school takes me, return and raise a family here. I really enjoy the community that I grew up in,” Dillon said. “I just hope that outside forces don’t like shape that community in a negative way.” 

Correction: Chris Kuehl’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Matthew Petillo is a Dow Jones reporting intern at Kansas City PBS/Flatland. He is a computer science and journalism student at the University of Kansas.

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