PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Kansas Chamber of Commerce released a report this week recommending ways to improve efforts statewide to recruit, educate, train and retain a qualified workforce. While the report includes some interesting recommendations, from a local perspective, some of its findings are also somewhat less optimistic than those of previous studies.

The Kansas Chamber’s report projects that Crawford County — similarly to every Kansas county surrounding it — will lose up to 5 percent of its population between 2019 and 2029. The report’s prediction for the working age population between the ages of 25 and 64 is even grimmer, with a projected population loss of up to 10 percent. This is in rather stark contrast to the significantly rosier picture painted by the City of Pittsburg in its land use plan that was released earlier this year.

“From 2019 through 2044, Crawford County is forecast to increase population by 14.1 percent, adding 4,250 residents,” according to the land use plan, which cited projections from the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research (CEDBR). “As population increases countywide, it is anticipated this population will grow into Pittsburg. This population growth directly impacts the need for retail space and housing.”

Another CEDBR study from more than a decade ago reportedly projected population growth of more than 20 percent in Crawford County by 2030.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little surprised by the large number,” Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson said at the time. He also said, however, that the “amazingly positive” prediction “affirms a lot of the things that we feel we’ve been working toward.”

John Van Gorden, then-interim Pittsburg City Manager, said in 2008 that the kind of growth forecast by the CEDBR would be great for the local economy, but couldn’t be guaranteed.

“I would think that kind of growth would be feasible,” Van Gorden said. “Of course, estimates are estimates, and with the way the economy is, it has to be tough to get an accurate reading on what could happen that far in advance. But I would assume that it could be feasible.”

According to the 2010 US Census, Crawford County’s population at that time was 39,134. The US Census estimate as of July 2019, meanwhile, actually showed a slight population decrease to 38,818. In its most recent population forecast on its website from 2016, however, the CEDBR continues to project population growth for the county, with the 2019 Crawford County population listed at 40,568, and projections of growth to 41,720 by 2024 and 42,737 by 2029.

Benson said in an email Friday that in 2008 “we knew that a 20% growth rate was an extremely aggressive prediction, particularly since we were entering a significant economic recession at that time.” But he added that he remained confident in the CEDBR’s population forecasts “because they also take into account changes that are occurring with a community and the impact those will likely have on future population numbers (ie housing developments, business growth, etc). This is opposed to just using static data that suggests your past trends will continue into the future.”

Benson noted that the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce is not an affiliate of the Kansas Chamber.

“We’ve seen almost $500 million in completed or announced projects in Pittsburg alone since 2012 and I have no doubt that will lead to population growth in the future,” Benson said. “Plus, we’re within two years of extending four-lane Highway 69 access all the way from Kansas City to Pittsburg. This has been a significant challenge in recruiting new industry to our community and I look forward to the impact that expanded highway access will provide.”

Regardless of whether predictions that Crawford County’s population will increase in the next decade prove accurate or not, population growth is an issue that has an impact on prospects for economic growth statewide.

“The most important and problematic demographic trend impacting the Kansas workforce is very slow population growth, leading to chronically tight labor market conditions,” according to the recently released Kansas Chamber report.

Of any region in the state, “Southeastern Kansas has seen the most dramatic demographic change in recent years. The region’s population declined by nearly 8,900 between 2008 and 2014. Perhaps due to an aging population, labor force losses have been even greater. After peaking in 2009, the region lost more than 13,000 labor force participants by 2014.”

The report’s recommendations include expanding work-based learning for students both in terms of enabling young people under 18 years old to get more work experience and incentivizing Kansas’ public colleges and universities to expand student internship opportunities and job placement in coordination with businesses. Other recommendations include establishing a statewide goal for increasing apprenticeships and funding the development of “a robust talent attraction strategy.”

Issues specific to Southeast Kansas that are identified in the report include a lack of transportation options and childcare availability, inadequate funding for adult basic education, and inadequate vocational training and rehabilitation options.

“While our local population numbers have stayed the same for a long time, there have been several groups working hard to change that over the past few years,” Benson said, pointing to efforts such as the Imagine Pittsburg 2030 planning initiative that has been underway over the past decade. “We’re addressing challenges that have kept us from growing and I think you’re going to see those efforts come to fruition in the very near future.”