New group seeks to grow Kansas tech industry's workforce

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A new group has formed to get Kansas residents talking about the state's technology industry because, organizers say, those already working here in the industry are unaware of the depth of career opportunities available and recruitment of new talent must be a collaborative effort.

"As a community, we are not coordinating ourselves to develop a workforce for tech like we do for aerospace and manufacturing," said Luis Rodriguez, president of Keycentrix, a provider of health care and pharmacy software that has been based in Wichita since 1974. "So last summer the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas pulled together a group of us from the sector and out of that we formed a board. We've been meeting every two weeks since then to create a plan of action for 2019 and we're ready to bring that to the whole community."

The organization, FlagshipKansas.Tech, recently hosted a kickoff event for anyone working in or passionate about technology. FlagshipKansas.Tech planned to share details with state and local officials on how it will work to raise awareness, grow the tech workforce and cultivate educational programs for technology companies across the state.

Board members revealed one of their first programs, Check Out Wichita — a play on a common software development term. It's an apprenticeship program that will bring 10 interns to Wichita from surrounding states and regional colleges in summer 2020. The program is fully funded to offer a salary as well as downtown housing and stipends to ensure the interns explore restaurants and attractions Wichita offers. Rather than spend the summer at one company, the college students will rotate among five participating companies.

"The reality is sometimes we don't get past perceptions so we are forcing their hands by offering a really sweet apprenticeship," Rodriguez said. "They could come away with five potential employers and they'll have had a taste of what our Kansas community offers. They'll realize that we are doing some amazing things in technology here, from giants like Koch and their digital companies; to NetApp, which is a Fortune 500 organization; regional powerhouses like High Touch Technologies; and quiet little gems like my company, Keycentrix."

High Touch Technologies is one of the participating companies in Check Out Wichita and Kevin Colborn, senior vice president of Technology Solutions, said collaborating to recruit talent is the top reason the company is one of nine founding members of FlagshipKansas.Tech.

"Our biggest challenge has been finding talent in the software development side as well as the more senior technical engineering level folks," he said. "We began doing some acquisitions just for the intent to acquire the talent along with the organization that we buy."

Colborn and others will be able to use FlagshipKansas.Tech as a tool when recruiting. The website eventually will be a place where companies or individuals can go to see how many tech companies operate in Kansas, what jobs are currently available and where to find training resources.

There's a misperception, Colborn told the Wichita Eagle , that if someone relocates to Kansas for a tech job, there will be limited options to move to another company within the area.

FlagshipKansas.Tech's board said they think even locals would be surprised to hear the number of companies working in the industry in Kansas. They worked with Wichita State University's Center for Economic Development and Business Research to determine there are roughly 1,800 tech companies in Kansas employing about 37,000 people. About 1,300 companies are considered tech creators — meaning they create hardware, software or a tech process — and the rest are working in tech education, sales, and service and repair.

The data shows about 300 tech companies are in Wichita, with nearly 270 being tech creators.

Those numbers don't include tech jobs found in aviation or manufacturing, for example.

"Every company is a tech company because either technology is their product or they use technology to build their product, bring their product to market or sell their product," said Amanda Duncan, vice president and chief business development officer at Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas. "Technology impacts every business in every industry and of every size, so it's important that we have a skilled workforce to meet that demand."

Duncan also sits on the board and is excited about the increased awareness that she thinks will assist with attracting talent from outside the state as well as encouraging youth to consider entering the field.

"There's going to be more awareness of the tech sector and tech occupations in the community, helping to show a career pathway and letting students know what is available," she said.

FlagshipKansas.Tech is a nonprofit and is affiliated with Technology Councils of North America. It's a membership-based organization with rates for companies as well as individuals.