The war for talent has finally come to Wichita.
Many companies here are struggling to attract the skilled people they need. Wichita needs more than a low cost of living to retain its sons and daughters when they reach adulthood or to attract people from elsewhere. It must have the jobs and amenities to convince them to stay.
But how do you do that? At a research conference on Wednesday, several Wichita State University experts discussed the issue.
Economic development has changed dramatically in recent decades, said Tim Craft, an associate professor of finance at WSU. As the nation’s economy has transformed, communities’ biggest weapon has shifted from tax breaks and free land to a creative, educated workforce.
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It’s pretty simple, he said: Manufacturing relies on expensive but hard-to-move buildings and machines. Workers could always be trained to run those machines.
“But labor-intensive industries rely on skilled people, who are more mobile,” he said. “So you have to create a good quality of life in the community so they’ll want to stay.”
Companies in fields from health care to computer services to architecture need these creative, educated workers: scientists, technicians, writers, programmers, artists, researchers, lawyers, financial analysts. The most recent figures show they make up about 31 percent of the Wichita workforce, which is about the national average but is far behind innovation hubs such as Austin or Boulder, Colo.
Focusing more narrowly on the economic value of the arts and culture, Sai Srithongrung, an associate professor in WSU’s Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs, said Wichita falls somewhat below the national average in arts and culture jobs per capita – but, then, so do three out of four metro areas in the U.S., all medium or smaller metros.
But not all smaller metros lack culture. Cities that Wichita often compares itself to – Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Omaha and Tulsa – are all above the national average.
The impact of reaching a higher level can be impressive, she said. If Wichita were to match Des Moines, it would mean nearly 850 more jobs and $300 million in wealth.
These jobs are good in themselves because of the economic development, she said, but they also make the community feel more vibrant and attractive to others.
“I’m not saying it’s the only way,” she said. “But it might be the most bang for the buck, because it has two roles.”
Jeremy Hill, president of WSU’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research, said Wichita lost a significant number of engineers and other skilled workers after the latest recession. They left because there were no jobs in their field.
The metro’s economic development group, the Greater Wichita Partnership, is well aware of the importance of talent to building the local economy.
The partnership brought on a talent specialist, Leah Lavender, last year. She is listening to corporate human resources staffs on their needs and thoughts about how to help.
The first thing prospective companies ask, she said, is about the talent pool. Are there people with this kind of skill? How many? What kind of salary do they get?
The president of the partnership, Jeff Fluhr, on Wednesday reiterated the importance of talent. It’s one of the most important – if not the most important – factors in economic development.
“Talent. That’s really the new commodity in economic development,” he said.