More jobs means more than better pay to some Kansans

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Josh Rou explains labor is the biggest problem facing the agriculture industry. Josh Rou explains labor is the biggest problem facing the agriculture industry.

More jobs and better pay coming their way, that was the conclusion of the annual jobs forecast from Wichita State's Center for Economic Development and Business Research Thursday.

"I have three part-time jobs right now," said 24-year-old Bailie Foster, present for the announcement.  "But none of them pay very well so I'm always looking for a job."

"I'm currently a waitress and I'm looking at trying to find something else," said Blythe Houchen, a senior at Wichita State, also at Century II.  "But it's hard."

Some are hoping the good news for Kansas job seekers could help keep the best and the brightest of the labor pool in the state.  The experts behind the forecast say it means more jobs, better pay, and more control for folks looking for a new job. 

"Some of it... it just didn't pay well enough," said Foster about jobs she's left in recent years.  She currently works three jobs but would gladly trade them in for something that pays a bit better.  She's no alone.  And after years of economic struggle across Kansas, she may get her wish. 

"I'm actually optimistic about the job outlook," said Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research behind the forecast.  For the last few years he's been pessimistic about job growth and Kansas has lost jobs.  But now, he says, things are turning around.  "It doesn't mean we're going to grow a lot.  But I think it's actually a positive sign."

In a big reveal Thursday morning, Hill announced he expects the number of available jobs in Kansas to grow by 1% or 13,890 new non-farm jobs over the next year, 0.83% or 2,457 here in Wichita.  That may not sound like much but compared with the last few years of losses it's an encouraging increase.

"Although households are feeling really good today and businesses are feeling good there are some weaknesses across the state," Hill cautioned.

Ironically, the state's low unemployment rate right  now is one of those weaknesses for businesses.  Now, they're fighting to find employees, putting job hunters in the employment driver's seat.

"There is labor still available, still to be absorbed," Hill said.  "It's just that the employers have to be a little bit more creative and they lost the power.  It's the employee who has the power now."

That means not only  do they expect job growth over the next year but they expect wages will go up as well.  Some are hopeful that also means more Kansans will stay in the state and, hopefully, those jobs will also attract newcomers to Kansas.

"I'm hopeful and I'd like to do something in Kansas, so it's exciting," explained Blythe Houchen, a senior at Wichita State.  Like Foster, she's one of many young Kansans struggling to make ends meet.  She's seriously been considering leaving Kansas for better opportunities elsewhere.  Thursday's job growth announcement has her thinking twice.  "I'm excited," she said again.  "Especially graduating in a year, it means there's going to be more opportunities."

"Labor migrates wherever opportunities are," Hill explained.  "If there are opportunities here we're going to attract more people."

That's particularly good news for industries like agriculture, where a lack of labor is the biggest problem right now.

"We need people," said Josh Rou with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.  He says his industry is in a very precarious spot right now where any sort of shock, from trade wars to weather extremes, can harm it.  But labor remains the biggest concern everywhere he goes.  "As to that, it's a common theme I hear, whether I'm talking to dairy a very rural part of the state, or if I'm in the Kansas City metro area talking to Ag tech companies."

Researchers say in order to convince employees to make the jump to a new job employers are going to have to work harder and be a little more generous with pay and benefits.  That's encouraging for  Blythe Houchen, who can now concentrate on the basics of getting that first full-time job after graduation.

"Trying to figure out how to do that, how to do my resume, and everything like that," she mused.

And it has Bailie Foster thinking about starting her own business soon.

"It makes me really excited," she explained.  "Because that means I have the opportunity to find employees who are very motivated and passionate about what they do and are not  just there for the paycheck."