Lt. Gov. Toland: Western Kansas needs workers 'and we need them now'
Kansas Lt. Gov. David Toland sees one major issue with Kansas' workforce - not enough workers.
"There are long-standing issues with the availability of labor, not just in northwest Kansas, but across the state," Toland said.
He said there are around 41,000 vacant jobs in the state and 3.1% unemployment.
"We need more bodies and we need them now," Toland said. "That's what we've heard loud and clear from businesses."
Toland made a stop in Hays Wednesday as part of a series of visits to parts of northwest Kansas this week.
Toland stopped at BriefSpace, a co-working site at 219 W. 10th St., and met with Doug Williams, the executive director of Grow Hays, a development organization in Ellis County that operates the site.
The lieutenant governor, who also serves as Secretary of Commerce for the state, said the purpose of the visit was to see how things are going in this part of the state.
"(To) see where there are more opportunities for growth and also where there are some pressure points, restricting growth," Toland said.
Is housing a root problem?
Toland said he likes to ask questions when he visits so he can get an understanding of what concerns Kansans.
"These folks know best what their needs are and what it's going to take to address that," Toland said.
One of the needs he's been hearing from northwest Kansans is housing. He said at every town he visited he's asked how many houses are on the market, with the response being zero to 12.
"So there's a real scarcity of housing products in rural, smaller communities, but also in larger towns like Hays," Toland said. "There simply aren't enough units available right now, so that creates pressure points for businesses...for families that are growing and so on down the line."
As this is an issue not unique to northwest Kansas but across the state, Toland said Gov. Laura Kelly has prioritized it as part of her administration.
"There's currently a state-wide housing assessment underway right now, the first one in, I think 27 years," Toland said. "(That's) being conducted to understand how many units are needed, what types of units are need...and then where do these units need to go in order to support business growth."
As part of his visit, Toland visited a Rural Housing Improvement District in development at East 22nd and Wheatland Avenue. Much of the infrastructure has been put in this Heart of America development, but there is still work to be done.
"This is exciting," Toland said. "I love to see an actual RHID underway...I approved the paperwork, but I don't actually get in the dirt very much, so this is cool."
After looking at the RHID Williams took Toland to the St. Joseph Catholic Church Parish building at the southeast corner of West 13th and Ash Street. This building is being repurposed for housing as well.
To finish his time in Hays, Toland returned to BriefSpace and got a tour of the facility by Williams.
The building at one time was the local Sears store and was redesigned as a shared workplace for what Williams described as a diverse group of businesses and individuals in the community.
"It's a wide arrangement of folks," Williams said.
Toland was impressed with the look and feel of BriefSpace.
"I've seen a lot of these spaces, but this is one of the best I've seen," Toland said.
He was particularly impressed with how the space was able to meet several needs of people that use it, like individual phone booths that allow for private conversations.