Industrial executives or representatives from Reno County and the vicinity told Kansas Department of Commerce Secretary David Toland Wednesday that their greatest need is workers.

"I heard what I hear across the state, which is workforce, workforce, workforce is what is limiting our businesses from growing. There's no easy solution to this challenge. It's going to take a lot of creativity and looking to applicant pools that might have been overlooked in the past and doing recruitment that we haven't done in the past," Toland said after the approximately hour-long roundtable at the Hutchison/Reno County Chamber of Commerce.

"The intensity of the workforce discussion was higher here than it usually is. I'm not sure how to analyze that," Toland said, comparing what he heard here to some other stops around the state.

David Cox of The Bradbury Co., Moundridge, said he offered a three-year program that would have paid for the participant's two-year degree while the individual also would work for the company. "We ended up getting zero," Cox said, of signups.

"I've got one manager under 40," said Eddie Smith, of Kuhn Krause, Hutchinson.

"If I had to add 10 people in the next six months, I'm not sure we could do that," said Darren Barnes, of Bold LLC, in Hutchinson.

Todd Warner, with Kincaid Equipment Manufacturing, Haven, said some employees drive from Wichita or Newton or Kingman, and commuting workers are at risk for leaving because of the drive.

"We're out of people," Toland said, noting there are 50,000 vacant positions in Kansas. Also, the state ranks 49th out of 50 in the retention of its young people.

The Commerce Department is considering marketing Kansas and its opportunities to audiences in Michigan and northern Ohio, where manufacturing plants have closed or moved and unemployment is higher. "I think we need to test the concept and see how it goes. It is under consideration because we don't have a lot of other options," Toland said.

Another marketing audience Commerce is eyeing is Kansas' own youths. Toland said the message will be two-fold: We want them and there's opportunity here.

"We're doing something wrong as a state when we're number 49," he said. Instead of hiring an out-of-state marketing firm to reach out to the state's young, Commerce could approach state universities to try to tap marketing programs there.

Businessman and former Kansas Senate President, Dave Kerr has advocated for training in welding, for example, for state prison inmates, so they could fill those jobs when they are released. He noted the obstacles for achieving something that "seems like a natural," he said. "I suspect we can get there, but it's taking a bit more than I expected," he said.

The executives also are interested in educating students in middle school about job opportunities here.

In remarks during and after the roundtable, Toland discussed:

Ten-year economic development strategy plan

The last comprehensive economic development strategy for the state was done in 1986. Nine entities are vying to help guide a strategic planning process for the state. Commerce has reviewed the qualifications of the nine companies and has asked them to submit a detailed proposal.

"I hope that we have selected a bidder in July and this can kick off in August or September," he said. "It will take nine months probably to complete the actual work," he said. "I hope what will come from this is clarity about where we're going to go as a state," he said, and a "thoughtful conversation about how we get there."

Attracting retailers

"We are statutorily prohibited from providing incentives to retail, which creates a challenge, particularly for more rural communities if you think about the closing of rural grocery stores across the state. That's a major issue that we don't have a lot of tools to be able to address," he said. The strategic planning will consider whether it still makes sense for a state statute to ban incentives to attract retail business, he said.

Expanding commerce

The department used to be "the marquee agency" for promoting Kansas and business, enjoying bipartisan support, he said. Under the Brownback Administration, funding for economic development and marketing decreased dramatically, he said. Recruiters to market Kansas businesses and products that were based overseas and at large domestic markets in the U.S. were generally dismissed. Under the new Kelly Administration, there is a presence again in Mexico City, New York, Dallas, and Chicago.

"What I'm trying to do is put this back together and reopen those lines of communication with business around the world, with buyers around the world," he said.