Adult education programs offered by Kansas' colleges and school districts are increasingly heading to workplaces to help employees with needed skills.
For example, Washburn University will soon offer conflict resolution to staffers at the Ramada Hotel in Topeka. Dodge City Community College will provide customer service lessons at Boot Hill Casino. And several schools are providing English classes, one of the most sought-after skills.
"There's a major shift taking place in education," said Karen Ulanski, the director for the Paola school district's adult education center.
Supporters say the classes help schools, businesses and workers. Schools can offer classes without waiting for students to enroll; businesses attract and retain skilled workers; and workers get free classes without having to go to a new location, Kansas News Service reported .
The trend is partly in reaction to the passage of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014, which encouraged education programs to meet private-sector needs. Educators began providing more specialized training for specific industries, such as financial literacy skills for retail sales, leading more industries to welcome in those classes.
"There's broader interest from employers in a range of industries then there used to be," said Neil Ridley, the state initiative director at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
Walmart recently announced a $460,000 grant for four Kansas adult education centers to offer more classes at retail and service sector workplaces. Six employers are part of the grant, working with centers that serve about a half-dozen employees. More are expected to be added. Several adult education centers are offering classes for the first time this fall.
But even before the grant, adult education centers across the state were offering similar programs: Paola's school district now offers programs across three counties.
Tyson Foods, which has several meat processing plants in Kansas, has paired with adult education centers to bring in classes since 2016. Tyson expanded that project to Hutchinson last month and plans to add classes to Olathe, Emporia and Kansas City, Kansas, this year.
Employers like the programs because they help attract and retain employees in a tight job market.
"I'm kind of having to get creative in my hiring because everyone else has a position," said Thea Parks, human research director for the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka. The hotel's staff will get training from Washburn Institute of Technology, paid for by the Walmart grant.
One drawback is that workers don't earn credits for a college degree or credential, which makes it harder for workers trying to advance their careers. The Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the Walmart-funded grant program, does require that the classes give employees skills applicable beyond their current job.
"These programs really should result in industry-recognized credentials that don't just help them in their current role," said Lul Tesfai, a senior policy analyst with New America, a left-leaning think tank that studies education.