What if Wichita became a place where education and life-long learning were core values? What would that look like, and how could it advance our city?
BUILDING A CITY OF LEARNERS
What if Wichita became a place where education and life-long learning were core values? What would that look like? A workforce that is able to adapt to shifts in an ever-changing economy. A citizenry that ceases to be satisfied with its current level of knowledge. A growing cultural scene bursting with creativity. A city that can adequately address the four critical challenges and avoid impending economic catastrophe.
Reach Advisor’s James Chung sees education, in many forms, as the key to unlocking Wichita’s constrained labor market, challenged perception and chronic underinvestment, all of which currently put Wichita behind peer cities like Des Moines, Omaha and Cedar Rapids.
Cedar Rapids is a particularly impressive example of how prioritizing education can dramatically shift the trajectory of a city. Cedar Rapids was once a Rust Belt community threatened by a declining manufacturing-based economy. Additionally, a devastating flood in 2008 ultimately became a reset point.
An important part of Cedar Rapid’s reset was in leveraging community college programs to ramp up workforce development. In an interview with The Wichita Eagle, Chung shared that a renewed focus on post-secondary degrees resulted in 40,000 people enrolling in classes each year in a community of 200,000 residents. This obsession with learning has made the city a hub for a highly trained and productive workforce that has attracted more companies to stay and grow within the city.
So how do we become a city that embraces learning and stays ahead of the curve?
We compiled a cheat sheet of just a few ways to become better workers, better community leaders and even better creative thinkers. Find something that interests you and dive in.
As was the case in Cedar Rapids, college is an obvious area to explore when it comes to learning new skills and encouraging life-long learning. The economy is constantly shifting, and universities are often at the forefront of adapting to the needs of the workforce.
If you have some college but no finished degree, Get AHEAD Kansas could be a good first step toward finishing that degree. But even if you have a degree, the world is shifting quickly enough that new skills — and programs — might be warranted.
In Wichita, Newman University’s Bishop Gerber Science Center is a big investment in healthcare education, an industry predicted to yield many more jobs as the baby boomer generation continues to age. Friends University recently invested in cyber security by opening up a Masters of Cyber Security program and establishing the Cyber Security Lab. Wichita State University has become a hub for innovation by building Innovation Campus and creating the Masters of Innovation Design program, which Chung says was recently called among the best programs in the world at innovation design by Johnson & Johnson. WSU Tech, formerly WATC, is creatively working to get more people into Wichita's higher education system by providing opportunities to learn with little cost and quickly get into high-paying, in-demand jobs.
If it weren't for the innovation and the thinking of the higher education institutions in Wichita, we wouldn't even be in the game anymore.James Chung
"We have world-class talent that we're developing here," Chung says. "It happens here."
These universities are changing their fabric in the face of growing animosity toward higher education here in Wichita. Chung says that while most Americans agree that a college education is extremely or very important for helping a young person succeed. In Wichita, only 54 percent agree. Only 33 percent agree that colleges are having a positive effect on the way things are going in America. These statistics should not sit well with Wichitans concerned with improving the long-term economic health of the region.
"Here's what really ticks me off about Wichita," Chung says. "If it weren't for the innovation and the thinking of the higher education institutions in Wichita, we wouldn't even be in the game anymore."
These perceptions need to change if we're to fully leverage the work of our world-class universities and encourage a new generation to embrace continuous learning. That being said, there are other ways to adapt to the changing world than going back to school.
Open up YouTube and type in something you're interested in, and you're bound to learn something. Almost anything can be learned with a few keystrokes. If you want to get a little more serious with your online education, there are complete college courses offered for free online through services like EdX, Coursera or even Harvard.edu. Or, you could learn from creatives at the top of their game through services like MasterClass or Lynda.
If you want to keep it local, you could go through the Badge Program at Wichita State University.
"It is a constantly evolving type of curriculum, and it's designed to meet very specific needs," says Kim Moore, director for workforce, professional and community education at WSU. "What's different about badges than other types of continuing education is that it is skill- and competency-based."
It is a constantly evolving type of curriculum, and it's designed to meet very specific needs.Kim Moore
When you take a badge course at WSU, you're taking an academic short course worth one credit hour or less. It's usually focused around a specific skill like writing for social media, rather than a complete social media marketing course. Each badge could also be part of a series of badges that make up what could be seen as a complete course. For example, the writing for social media course is tied to the "Professional Writing Series."
The other unique thing about badges is they are designed specifically with employer needs in mind. When an international company needed foreign language training for their employees, they turned to WSU to create a badge.
"Not the language skills that you get in a three-hour course, because they don't have time for that," Moore says. "So this is an ideal way of meeting those needs for a skilled, and workforce-ready workforce."
Badges are also generated with the full-time worker in mind. They're completely online with open educational resources, so there's no expensive textbook to purchase. Badges cost between $100 and $200, but scholarships are available for high school students and full-time workers alike.
For those interested in the badge program, visit Badges.Wichita.Edu.
For many, the best way to learn is through doing. If that's you, the best way to learn a new skill could be by embedding yourself with the seasoned and experienced through an apprenticeship.
Today, apprenticeships are rare. But electricians still practice taking in trainees and turning them into journeymen.
"Probably the number one advantage is it's going to earn money all the way through," says Tony Naylor, training director for the Wichita Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (WEJATC). "Then the second advantage is, when you do graduate, you have all the experience to do your job."
Probably the number one advantage is it's going to earn money all the way through. Then the second advantage is, when you do graduate, you have all the experience to do your job.Tony Naylor
When first year apprentices are selected, they pay an upfront fee of about $4,000 for the entire four-year program, which includes the equipment they'll use on the job. That first year, apprentices will begin to earn, with raises going into effect every six to nine months. By the end of the four years, if they pass their licensing test, the apprentices will be full-fledged journeymen electricians, earning a solid salary with plenty of experience to feel confident on the job.
The WEJATC also works to meet the demands of major employers like Spirit AeroSystems and Wesley Medical Center, which are in constant need of qualified electricians to help in expansion, remodeling and building.
"I'll bet right now, out of 800 electricians, there are 75 at the Spirit plant in addition to the 200 working on their facilities right now," Naylor says. "We have a partnership with them. ... It's a big place for us."
Those interested in apprenticeships similar to the ones through WEJATC should contact the Wichita Workforce Center.
Let's say you're already comfortable in your job and your pace of learning, but you're wanting to get to know other professionals like you to expand opportunities and camaraderie. Networking may be your best bet.
Alejo Cabral is the director for Young Professionals of Wichita (YPW), an arm of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce that connects young professionals to each other and organizations across Wichita.
"To me what it means is that I'm going to help young people connect to each other, to the community, to organizations, and to people of influence," Cabral says. "And then I want to give young people the opportunity to develop because we can't have leaders unless those people are equipped to lead."
I want to give young people the opportunity to develop because we can't have leaders unless those people are equipped to lead.Alejo Cabral
James Chung says young professionals are some of the least welcomed in this city. That makes the mission of YPW vital to retaining young talent who can become future leaders.
"If all of our young people leave, at some point all of our leaders are going to age out," Cabral says.
Cabral says networking and communities like YPW are connectors in a city in which it can be tough to connect.
"Wichita is really hard to connect to if you're not in the know," he says. "I hate to say that, and I'm not saying YPW is in the know about everything, but we have 3,600 members and that membership base is pretty diverse in the industries that people work in."
Cabral says instead of becoming the group to end all groups, YPW should be seen as a connector — a group to join so you can find other groups that fill your passions and connect you to the communities in which you can better yourself.
Continuous learning can be as simple as finding a community that values learning — and encourages you to continuously better yourself. If you're interested in joining YPW, visit YPWichita.org.
Sometimes, learning requires a more hands-on approach. That's where workshops come in. Whether it's a seminar about creative writing, a photography class or an arts community, workshops provide an opportunity to think outside the box and create alongside likeminded — or not so likeminded — creatives.
Workshops also provide opportunities for artists to learn business skills so they can turn their passion into a career.
"We look to foster creative action in community," says Kristin Beal, an artist, curator and educator at Harvester Arts, an artist-run space located on the edge of Old Town. "A city-wide art appreciation course is here if [Wichitans] want it."
We need to support the creative community so that they can thrive here. Then by thriving here, they give back to the community and help create a community that other people want to live in.Kate Van Steenhuyse
Harvester Arts was founded by artist and educator Kate Van Steenhuyse who runs the space along with Beal and Ryan Gates, a filmmaker, producer, designer and creative director. Through this platform, artists can participate in parades, festivals and classes. One of those classes is Artist INC, a course designed to help artists go from amateur to pro with tips on how to brand themselves and create a business out of their work.
"Artists are small businesses, and if they don't know how to be a successful small business, that's not good for them individually," Van Steenhuyse says. "It's also not good for our creative community. We want to have a thriving community and a thriving creative community."
While workshops can be perfect for artists looking to make that step into professionalism, they can also be great for anyone looking for a new perspective.
And even if they aren't interested in creating the art themselves, supporting the arts in Wichita is nevertheless important for attracting and retaining talent, which is the goal of continuous education in the first place.
"By thriving here, [artists] give back to the community and help create a community that other people want to live in," Van Steenhuyse says.
No matter where you are in your career — or where you want to go — continuing your education has never been more important for you as an individual and our city as a whole. The world is not standing still. Neither should we.
Find a workshop, apprenticeship, online course or an entirely new degree program and give it your all. Your city will thank you.