Inside Wichita Community Foundation's Innovative Effort to Attract Talent to its City

By Amanda Palleschi

Students participating in the WSU Tech job-training program not only get free tuition, but help with living expenses and an opportunity for a well-paying job upon completion.  Photo courtesy of WSU Tech.

Students participating in the WSU Tech job-training program not only get free tuition, but help with living expenses and an opportunity for a well-paying job upon completion.
Photo courtesy of WSU Tech.

At this time last year, Arron Verrett was working 11-hour days at a Tucson, Ariz., call center. Verrett, then 21, took the gig – answering 200 customer service calls a day – after a bout of unemployment following an injury. 

He knew he needed a change. So when ads popped up in his Facebook and Instagram feeds, promising to pay his training, tuition, and living expenses — and give him a shot at a middle-class job painting commercial airplanes — he was intrigued. A new start sounded like a good idea.

Still, it seemed too good to be true.

“I thought it was a scam,” Verrett says. “I’ve seen scholarships before, but I’d never seen a scholarship that actually pays for just about everything.” 

Everything, that is, if he agreed to move to Wichita, Kansas.

Verrett clicked on the ad and, unlike many advertisements, this one – for WSU Tech’s Wichita Promise Move program – delivered on its promises. 

Today, Verrett is painting airplanes for Spirit AeroSystems. He starts at a $14.75/hour salary, gets a pension, and plans to stick around Wichita. The program, funded by the Wichita Community Foundation, paid for tuition to a job-training program, living and relocation expenses, and set up him with an interview.  

“I started my career here,” Verrett says, before correcting himself: “I started my new life here.”

Wichita, like many midsize Midwestern cities, has been struggling to attract skilled workers in the face of the ongoing decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Roughly half a million people call the Wichita metropolitan statistical area home. But the city, long driven by its aviation manufacturing and agriculture industry jobs, didn’t rebound as quickly as similar cities of its size after the 2008-2009 recession. 

When some jobs returned, qualified candidates had left. That left many of the city’s companies without enough trained workers to fill key roles.

A Foundation’s Promise

That’s where the Wichita Community Foundation saw opportunity.

In 2018, the Foundation created the $1 million Talent Ecosystem Fund, dedicated to workforce development and human capital.

It was the largest investment in the Foundation’s 32-year history. 

Photo courtesy of WSU Tech

Photo courtesy of WSU Tech

The Fund’s first investment was $500,000 in the Wichita Promise MOVE initiative at WSU Tech to bring people like Verrett to Wichita with six core promises:

  • tuition and fees for a six- to eight-week WSU Tech job-training program

  • paid cost of living expenses

  • relocation expenses

  • paid, personal career coaching

  • a guaranteed interview with aviation industry partners

  • a potential sign-on bonus.

The promise of paid expenses proved to be a key part of the equation, since many people who would consider such a program cannot afford to give up their current incomes when they have rent to pay and children to feed.

By December 2018, 49 students from 17 states had completed the program. All of them have been offered jobs in Wichita. Participants were recruited almost exclusively through social media advertisements.

Wichita Community Foundation President and CEO Shelly Prichard says she already sees signs the program has the potential to help reinvigorate the city’s economy, too: “We have landlords getting excited because they’re getting tenants who are working,” she says. 

And industry partners Textron Aviation and Spirit Aerosystems are happy, since the Wichita Promise Move pledges to remove the costs barriers for training for the jobs they need.  

A Magnet for Millennials

Contrary to stereotypes, the largely millennial enrollees find the city plenty “cool” when such incentives are offered. 

Prichard recalls attending a function for Promise Move enrollees where she heard a student from San Diego telling another from Brooklyn how to use downtown Wichita’s free trolley.

Prichard believes the program proves the Talent Ecosystem Fund has a bright future, as long as the city and its donors are “willing to take risks.” 

“We’re taking to people about opening funds that I don’t know that we ever would have,” she said. “It has helped our whole community see what a strong catalyst the community foundation can be.”