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Hoisington, Barton County seek workers
Labor demand main topic of joint session
Barton County Commissioner Kirby Krier, far right, questions Superior Essex Plant Manager Tony Szot, left, about his efforts to address a current workforce shortage at the Hoisington plant.

HOISINGTON – A need for more workers in Barton County is developing as a variation on a pervasive theme for the Barton County Commission. 

After its joint meeting with the Great Bend City Council in March, county commissioners traveled to the Hoisington Activity Center Monday for a joint meeting with the Hoisington City Council. Workforce development and the support systems that drive it dominated open discussion prior to the Hoisington Council’s regular monthly meeting.

Commission Chairman Shawn Hutchinson, who also serves on the Great Bend Economic Development board, said that seven comprehensive studies have been done ranging from area business and statistical studies to housing, downtown and hotels. A handout linking the impact of childcare to workforce development was also available to all who attended. 

“Housing and childcare are top needs, but the number one need to grow our economy in Barton County is workers,” Hutchinson said. “Housing and childcare are ways that we can get more workers.”

Tony Szot, plant manager of Superior Essex in Hoisington, was invited to share his observation on the workforce issue.

Szot noted that the plant was down about 15 employees from last year and currently has 60 employees over age of 60, including 10 that are expected to retire in May.

“Right now, we are struggling to get people to work,” he said. “We have 25 open positions that we are struggling to fill.” 

The company is looking to expand next year and that would bring 25 more jobs to Hoisington. Getting night shift employees has been especially difficult, he said. Night shift is the entry level, which impacts younger employees with children. Szot said that in a recent in-house survey, more than one-fourth of the respondents said they had difficulties with childcare or they knew of someone who wasn’t in the workforce due to lack of childcare.

“I’ve lost some employees because the husband and wife were both working and a spouse has a job that pays better while the other does childcare. I’m the one that suffers because of that,” he said.

“Where I’m standing on this is, we need more childcare,” Szot said. He noted that the plant has more than $180 million in sales annually, with $18 million going for wages and salaries. “Superior Essex is huge for the local economy,” he said. “My fear is, with Superior Essex being a big corporation, that they will take the equipment and move it elsewhere where they can find employees.

“I understand that with housing, we’re looking at bringing people in from the outside, but we’ll kill ourselves if we don’t get the people that are already here who would be able to work if they had the childcare.”

According to GBED’s current childcare statistics, Barton County is 705 childcare slots short, for ages ranging from under 1 year old to the age of 5. To meet that need, using state and federal childcare guidelines, the county would need 12 neighborhood childcare centers at 50 children each. 

In turn, the 12 new centers would create 144 new full-time equivalent jobs and make a total of 223 new jobs if the need was met.

With childcare at full capacity, an estimated 564 people could join the Barton County workforce, bringing in an additional $22 million in personal income based on average wages.

‘Not done deal’

Meanwhile, the Hoisington Council is moving into the funding phase of a proposed community daycare solution. 

Windgate Apartments was developed out of a choice between having a facility that could be operated by individuals or an organization or, for the same money, tearing the buildings down, noted Hoisington City Manager Jonathan Mitchell. The project, which has yet to be approved as a daycare option by the council, has moved to a funding phase after inspection by a local contractor and clearance from the state fire marshal.  

“What we have talked about doing is to raise funds from outside sources so that the city’s investment in the property is the same as what it would cost to demolish the structures,” Mitchell said. “It puts a burden on our staff to raise those funds but we’re working on that.”

In the concept plan, all but two of the Windgate units would be demolished for parking and play area. Together, the two remaining units could accommodate approximately 70 children.

“There are some misconceptions that this is a done deal,” Mitchell said. “It is a work in progress, but the final decision has yet to be made by the council.”

Day care providers weigh in

Several providers operating daycare homes were concerned that a large facility would be hurtful to the those operating in the community. Most of the providers were at or near capacity with waiting lists. Their income primarily is derived from a capacity of 10 children, excluding infants, which require additional state and federal guidelines. Most do not participate in a subsidized childcare program.

Veronica Ludwig, who has operated a daycare for 34 years in the community, was against creating the facility.

“I don’t think we need a huge facility with that many people like we’re talking,” she said. “Most of us have been doing this for a long time. I don’t want to see this hurt other daycares.”

The panel also discussed issues with using the older buildings as a daycare facility, with the suggestion that the city retain an engineer to do a site study on the condition of the structures planned to be renovated.