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Aircraft work helps drive jobs recovery in Wichita area

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, at 7:57 p.m.

It’s always hard to know the bottom of a recession until it’s well past.

But it’s pretty clear that the Wichita area is 12 months into a jobs recovery, based on the latest state employment figures, although that recovery remains weak.

After recurrent layoffs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the job numbers appear to be rebuilding – somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 jobs, depending on the month. That works out to about a 1 percent gain in the number of jobs over the last year.

Driving that recovery is a bit of a surprise. Aircraft manufacturing was up 2,400 jobs, or 8.3 percent, in October compared to October 2011, according to numbers from the state Department of Labor.

Another big gainer over the year has been the oil and gas industry, which has added more than 1,000 jobs in the Wichita area, about 7.5 percent. And the ripple effect of that oil and gas money is creating jobs at law firms, accounting businesses and trucking companies.

Employment at temp agencies, a traditional bellwether for future employment growth, is up more than 14 percent from a year ago.

The biggest drag has been cuts to local governments in the Wichita area, which have shed about 3,500 jobs since October 2011, according to the state figures. State government had no cuts, while the federal number dropped by 500 jobs, according to the October numbers.

Malcolm Harris, an economist and finance professor at Friends University, said he’s encouraged generally by the trend.

Spirit AeroSystems has grown, and the oil and gas boom has produced economic growth through a wide swath of the state.

In fact, he said, some studies show that the shale oil and gas drilling boom nationally has produced about half of all jobs added in the economic recovery.

“It’s remarkable, but it’s also kind of scary because it means you’re not seeing much growth coming from anywhere else,” he said.

He worries that the Obama administration will implement more environmental regulations that will slow oil and gas exploration.

The good news nationally, he said, is that the housing industry is finally showing signs of a turnaround.

Job growth is a clearer signal of economic health than the unemployment rate, which includes people who are unemployed but actively looking for work.

The Wichita area unemployment rate has been falling steadily since it peaked in the summer of 2009 at 10.6 percent, when more than 10,000 people suddenly started looking for work, likely to support a laid-off family member.

The unemployment rate in October was 6.2 percent.

But what’s worrisome, Harris said, is that the number of people seeking work continues to fall.

“Some are giving up,” he said. “Part of it is that some people have been out of work so long that it gets harder to find a job. And we do have a lot of people hitting retirement age and just retiring. It’s a definite loss for the economy.”

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