Growing retail sector could stretch workforce

With a water park, Old Chicago restaurant and seven new retail stores planning to open in Garden City within the next year, finding workers to fill job openings at those businesses could be a challenge, especially considering the low local unemployment rate.

According to the Kansas Department of Labor, the state’s unemployment rate in October was 5.1 percent; Finney County’s unemployment rate was 3.7 percent, and Garden City’s was 4 percent.

Some local officials involved in workforce issues agreed the tight job market could be an issue, though solutions aren’t readily apparent.

“It’s on our radar. It’s a really good question,” Steve Dyer, Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce president, said.

Dyer has heard comments from retailers and restaurants about a potential impact on the local workforce.

“Their comments are they’re not concerned about the competition of the businesses, they’re concerned about the competition for employees,” he said.

Dyer said the chamber has had internal discussions about ways it could partner with other governmental, educational and economic development organizations and businesses to develop strategies to address workforce issues, which might include training opportunities and marketing. But those discussions haven’t been put into action yet.

Growth is good, Dyer said, but there’s also some growing pains that may come with it.

Finding new retail workers could be an offshoot of efforts to recruit new industrial or manufacturing businesses. As workers relocate here to take those primary, bread-winner type jobs, the secondary retail and restaurant jobs could be taken by a spouse or teenager looking to work part-time.

“Hopefully, we can also find people on the outskirts looking for employment,” Dyer said.

Dyer said there’s also a possibility that some people may be looking for an opportunity to take a part-time job to supplement the income earned at another full time job.

Nicole Lucas, Downtown Vision executive director, said most conversation among downtown businesses is positive about the new retail developments. Many downtown employees are part-time workers, and she hasn’t heard of any business downtown having a problem finding employees.

“They see it as being an asset for the whole town, and for the downtown area. I have not heard any rumblings from merchants down here about having a hard time finding people to work. I know they really don’t have an issue with it right now,” Lucas said.

While the Finney County Economic Development Corp. focuses its workforce recruitment efforts mainly on filling primary jobs, Lona DuVall, FCEDC president, said the good retail secondary jobs could be filled by young workers just starting out, as well as those reaching retirement age who want to continue working part-time.

“When we talk to people at the high school level, we consistently hear a lot of those not old enough for primary type jobs are still looking for opportunities to get into the workforce. The sooner we can get them into the workforce where they can learn those life skills like being to work on time, following a schedule, treating customers with respect, the better it is for our overall workforce,” she said.

Retail and restaurant jobs are typically attractive to college students due to the often flexible hours and schedules.

The new jobs created by developments like Schulman Crossing also could help FCEDC in recruiting primary workers, DuVall said.

“The more opportunities there are for the extended family, the better the chances that we’ll be able to recruit those workers here. It’s not just the quality of life, but for the opportunities it creates for other jobs. It’s a great way to attract those workers to the community,” she said.

Garden City Community College also could be a source of workers for new retail stores and restaurants, as well as for the new hotels being built here.

“With the retail sector growing across the country, I think it’s a viable opportunity for students no matter what area they’re in,” Bruce Exstrom, vice president of instructional services, said.

GCCC offers various programs that might be attractive to businesses, he said, with students looking to go into retail who have a business background or even a technical background.

Exstrom said in response to the need for food service and hospitality workers, GCCC is starting a culinary management program in the spring. The program, approved by the Kansas Board of Regents this fall, will offer classes such as management, food preparation and food safety.

As students are drawn to the culinary management program, they might also look for parttime jobs in the new businesses while they attend school.

“Absolutely. It’s a fast paced business, both retail and restaurant/hospitality. We need safe workers, people with management skills and communication skills. That’s what we’re trying to do is respond to the regional need. We understand that new restaurants are coming in, new hotels are coming in, new retail. We’re trying to provide training or longer term training to students,” he said.