Kansas Chamber survey reveals businesses plan to expand jobs, anxious about labor pool

TOPEKA — The Kansas Chamber’s annual business poll showed a record 35% of owners or executives surveyed expect to add jobs in the upcoming year and revealed apprehension about availability of quality workers as the state economy grapples with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The business lobbying organization Tuesday produced the assessment to check the pulse of business leaders ahead of the state legislative session opening Jan. 10.

Thirty-five percent believed Kansas had the best business climate in the United States — an increase of five percentage points since 2019 and the highest mark in 17 years of comparable surveying by the Kansas Chamber. The portion disagreeing with that premise stood at 57%.

Quality workforce was a top issue in the Business Leaders Poll conducted Nov. 30 to Dec. 7, easily surpassing concerns about taxation, COVID-19, political leadership or government regulation. Workforce satisfaction slipped to 51%, tied with 2017 as the lowest mark in the annual surveying. Most expressed alarm with non-technical skills of people in the market for a job, including the ability to show up on time or dress appropriately.

“This year’s poll found concerns about the Kansas workforce are skyrocketing,” said Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber. “While more than a third plan to increase their staffs during the next year, business leaders believe the quality of the state’s workforce is the top issue they face.”

Among 300 business owners or executives participating in the survey, 44% said lowering taxes was the best approach to improving profitability of Kansas businesses. Other avenues to better company profit: cutting government mandates, 30%; managing health care costs, 27%; lowering energy costs, 26%; and limiting government, 25%.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they paid too much in taxes, but there was divergence on what tax ought to be lowered. Two-thirds supported dropping property taxes, half favored reducing individual income taxes and 45% were on board with slashing sales taxes. Seventy-one percent objected to a hypothetical sales tax on professional services, such as the transactions of accountants, doctors, engineers and lawyers.

Eighty-one percent of those surveyed indicated Kansas government officials should cut state spending rather than boost taxes.

“Limiting the growth of government also is higher than ever and energy costs are the highest since 2013,” said Pat McFerron, president of the polling firm Cole Hargrave Snodgrass and Associates. “Ultimately, however, these are all dwarfed by concerns about taxation.”

In terms of the pandemic, 72% of those taking part in the poll said individual businesses should decide whether to mandate vaccination of their employees. Ten percent preferred government order vaccinations for COVID-19, while 19% were opposed to such government directives.

“In 2020,” McFerron said, “it was all about either instituting or not instituting restrictions. This year the message is clear. Businesses do not want government in the middle of their relationships with their employees as they continue to work to navigate the virus’ ongoing impact.”

A majority in the poll, or 53%, were opposed to any law preventing businesses from taking adverse action against employees who declined to be vaccinated. Forty percent of those in the survey supported a prohibition on businesses and 8% were undecided.

In a special session in November, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill crafted by GOP leaders and signed by Gov. Laura Kelly providing for the unquestioned moral, religious and medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine requirements and ensured unemployment compensation for anyone fired because of their vaccine status anyway. Under the statute, Kansas businesses risk up to $50,000 fines for refusing to accept a worker’s exemption request.

On the issue of education, 62% of business leaders in the poll expressed satisfaction with the state’s public education system — a decline of 10 percentage points from the previous year. A majority of respondents said the objective of increased state aid to K-12 school should to improve student academic performance.

Cobb said findings of the annual survey would influence the Kansas Chamber’s priorities and could be of use to the Kansas Legislature and the governor.

“Hearing directly from Kansas business leaders is vital to the economic growth of our state,” Cobb said. “It is our hope the governor and state lawmakers keep these poll findings in mind as they consider the many important decisions they will make during the 2022 legislative session.”

The poll of business leaders was designed to reflect company sizes and industry sectors making up the Kansas business community rather than an assessment of opinion among members of the Kansas Chamber. The telephone survey had a margin of error of 5.6%.