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Benefits, training tops for job seekers

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

It could look like a good problem to have, considering the nation's unemployment rate hovered near 8.2 percent in March, but Ellis County's low unemployment rate at 3.1 percent in March has presented labor force challenges of its own.

Looking for some concrete answers to labor pool questions, one of the first steps Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development Executive Director Aaron White took after stepping into his role last fall was to commission a labor basin study. Recently completed by Fort Hays State University's Docking Institute, that study sheds some light on labor force issues in the nine-county area surrounding Ellis County.

The 42-page document outlines key factors identified in the labor basin of just more than 84,000 total population.

Within an estimated civilian labor force of about 50,700, the study said 21,124 are considered to be part of the area's available labor pool.

Of that labor pool, White said, an additional 3,833 non-working and 13,894 individuals would consider new or different employment opportunities.

"There is a significant pool available that, for the right job, the right opportunity, they would look for a new career," he said.

After studying the data, White said he found some interesting factors that could influence the choice of survey participants to change employment.

"Good salary, hourly pay ranked fourth," he said. "First was good health benefits. Second was good retirement benefits. Third was on-the-job training.

"The ability to train up in a new position and having those secondary benefits were a little more important than the salary."

Those findings likely should be considered by employers as they structure recruitment advertising strategies, he said, with companies recognizing the importance of benefits and training.

The perception of underemployment evidenced in the survey also was quite telling, White said. Twenty-seven percent of workers indicated they were not making use of their education, job experience or training or that their wages were not in line with their training or experience level.

White said he would share and discuss findings of the survey with area companies concerned with recruiting efforts.

"This (survey) is going to be a really effective tool as we work with local companies who might be looking to do a larger expansion," he said. "We can take this information, partnering with KansasWorks and formulate some very specific recruitment strategies to go after some of these pools that the labor basin study has identified."

Tom Kotch, ECC chairman and Enersys plant manager, said he had studied the Docking Institute's labor basin study and believes there are additional mitigating factors in the western Kansas labor market. Ellis County's low unemployment rate, he said, has presented challenges for hiring in the manufacturing sector. That challenge could be alleviated by developing interest in the benefits of manufacturing as a career.

He said he has worked with high school administrators to encourage students to consider working in the manufacturing field.

"We've tried to be supportive as possible ... trying to get in to talk with counselors, principals and help them further manufacturing," he said.

In addition to high schools, Kotch said Enersys has developed relationships with Fort Hays State University and North Central Kansas Technical College in working to meet employment needs in the western Kansas region.

Enersys draws employees from the nine counties surrounding Ellis County, with employees commuting as far as 70 miles one-way to work.