Former Kansas education official takes aim at workforce challenges

Former education commissioner Diane DeBacker has been appointed executive director of business and education innovation at the Kansas Department of Commerce. (Allison Kite/The Capital-Journal)

Faced with worker shortages in skilled and technical jobs, Kansas is taking aim at bridging the divide between how schools teach and what businesses need from their workers.


Diane DeBacker, former Kansas education commissioner, was appointed late last year to the new executive director of business and education innovation position at the Kansas Department of Commerce.

“It’s an all-encompassing position right now,” DeBacker said.

DeBacker’s job brings education voices into the commerce department, an agency with cabinet-level influence in state government. She said the aim was to bring education and business officials together to better prepare students for the jobs available in Kansas.

“This is not a new topic for commerce. It’s not a new topic for Kansas,” DeBacker said. “I think it’s just taken on more of an urgency lately as we’ve looked at some of the businesses that have wanted to locate here in Kansas, some of the businesses that have wanted to maybe retool what they’re doing.”

DeBacker said the goal of her job would be to deliver a ready workforce when businesses consider locating in Kansas, ensuring schools are teaching for jobs students can get and businesses can retool potential employees with skills they need. She said that could mean rethinking the school day structure or tailoring curriculum for students’ career interests and the department will outline goals in the coming weeks.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Sam Brownback advocated 75 percent of students graduating high school get some kind of advanced training, like a college degree or post-secondary certification.

According to the Kansas Department of Labor, nearly 49,000 jobs stood open across the state last year, up 9.1 percent from 2016. Construction, leisure and hospitality, and education and health services had some of the highest vacancy rates.

“I think any of your STEM areas — so any of your science, technology, engineering, math areas — will tell you that they are in need of more workers,” DeBacker said.

DeBacker said health technology, agriculture and manufacturing also face worker shortages.

“Kansas is not unique in that we need a skilled workforce,” DeBacker said. “We know that the better we prepare our students — whether that be in K-12, whether that be in higher education — the better we prepare our students to match the needs of employers, it’s more likely that they’re going to stay in Kansas. Our economy will get better because of that, and we’ll have more businesses that want to come to the state of Kansas because we can supply that workforce.”

Barbara Stapleton, vice president of workforce and education for GO Topeka, said that was a common concern.

“It’s something that we are seeing,” Stapleton said. “It’s not just something that’s a concern in the state of Kansas or Northeast Kansas or Topeka, but across the country.”

Stapleton said her organization partners with the Topeka Workforce Center to make sure employers’ needs are met. She said quality of life initiatives, like walk-able downtown areas and downtown housing, were also essential to recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce.

With a low unemployment rate in Kansas, it can be difficult to find workers. DeBacker said Wamego-based Caterpillar struggled to find welders and went through the department’s Workforce Aligned with Industry Demand program, which trains workers through a partnership with the Kansas Board of Regents.

DeBacker said she’d also like to focus on keeping workers in Kansas.

“We have a tendency in Kansas for people to be born and raised here, but then decide that they want to go and look at other places,” DeBacker said.

DeBacker left the country for a year and lived in the United Arab Emirates advising officials in the Abu Dhabi Education Council. Most recently, she worked for RTI International, a North Carolina-based nonprofit. She said many people leave the state and eventually return.

“We want it to be where they never need to leave — that the jobs are here, the wages are here, the quality of life is here,” DeBacker said.