I guess you could say that education has been on my mind this week.
It’s spring, and that means classes of new graduates will be making their way out of their halls of learning and into the world. It’s always interesting to see their next steps.
Some will make their way to four-year programs, some to two-year or technical training, some into the armed forces, and some will go straight to the job force.
No single path is right for all of them, of course.
My path led me to Kansas State University, and a four-year bachelor’s degree that was the key to a now 21-year career in agricultural communications. I have friends who took other paths into skilled trades. And none of us regrets the decisions we made.
But I was chatting with Eddie Estes, president of the Western Kansas Manufacturers Association, this past week at the annual 3i Show — here in Dodge City. He brought up, again, the struggle that Kansas manufacturers are having finding trained employees for their labor needs.
Folks, we’ve heard this for the past 20 years or more.
We’re trying to address it in the state. The Kansas Department of Commerce has its Workforce Services opportunities on its website. The Kansas Department of Agriculture is working to show high school students the local agricultural labor opportunities in their communities through special field days. The Kansas Legislature and the Kansas Association of Community College Trustees are working on legislation to make school affordable.
The missing piece of the puzzle? Us.
Look in the mirror
It’s up to us to try to match the young people in our lives with the job track that’s appropriate to them and their needs — not our goals for them. We need to show them that there’s opportunity coming home in their communities, in so many various capacities as adults.
Maybe your child won’t come home to farm the family ground. But could they come home to be the rural mental health professional to help the farmers of their community, using their experience? Might they be a teacher in the school, a nurse in the doctor’s office, an HVAC technician with expertise in farm buildings?
The characteristics that make living in rural Kansas attractive to many of us, like the wide open spaces and the small-town atmospheres, likely aren’t going to attract people who grew up in the Wichita metro area to pick up and move out here. So we’re going to need to grow our own talent pool.
Not everyone can farm out here, but there’s plenty of support jobs that we need filled to keep our communities thriving and support the farmers who are on the land. From technicians at our equipment dealerships, to machinists and welders on the manufacturing lines, to the food scientists and safety experts in our food plants, there are plenty of good middle-class jobs in agriculture and rural Kansas. And we need to show our young people that those can be rewarding career paths that can support a family, support a community, and support the people they care about here at home.
It’s up to us, as the adults in the room, to help them find their way. That way might lead them far from our farms and ranches, and that’s OK, too. But if that way leads back home? Well, then, that would be pretty great, too.