About 800 people gathered at Intrust Bank Arena on Thursday morning to hear a forecast for sluggish job growth in Wichita and Kansas.
The 38th Annual Kansas Economic Outlook Conference included employment forecasts by Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research that pointed to growth of 1,065 jobs in the Wichita area, and 1,500 in Kansas.
The growth in Wichita area jobs will largely come from professional and business services, education and health care, and leisure and hospitality, the forecast said. The additional jobs statewide will be come from most of the same sectors where Wichita will see jobs growth, as well as in the sectors of wholesale trade, transportation and utilities.
In addition to unveiling the employment forecasts, the 3 1/2-hour long conference included speeches by national and local experts, and local company executives and public officials.
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Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s conference:
▪ No national recession looms, said conference speaker Joseph Qunilan, who leads market and thematic strategy at Bank of America’s global wealth and investment management unit. Quinlan said the U.S. has a $19 trillion economy “that chugs forward” and will continue to do so in 2018 through consumers’ purchases of goods and services. “The consumption economy is going to drive us forward,” he said.
But Quinlan said there are a couple of things that could prove troubling for the U.S. economy. One of them is “protectionism” in terms of trading with foreign countries and otherwise participating in the global economy. “If we go down this protectionist road where we make it a little more difficult to move goods, people and services, there’s going to be a price to be paid.”
Qunilan’s second concern was one echoed by several other speakers and panelists: a labor shortage.
▪ The labor shortage is a national and a local concern. Quinlan said there are 6 million job openings in the U.S. right now and they’re not all being filled because there is a shortage of workers. “There’s huge pressure building on our labor force now,” Qunilan said.
Jeremy Hill, CEDBR director, also thinks there is a shortage of skilled workers in Wichita and across Kansas that could be restraining current and future growth by prompting companies to look to other states that have an available labor pool for expansion and relocation.
▪ Manufacturing challenges for Wichita and the state include hiring and retaining skilled workers.
“We are finding it very difficult to find the laborers … that have the skills we desire,” said panelist Jared Peterson, president of Vermillion Inc., a Wichita-based aerospace and defense supplier. “Also ... because of the shortage of skilled employees out there, we are having to fight hard to retain the folks we have because there are larger manufacturers out there offering better incentives.”
Another challenge for manufacturing is developing a pipeline of skilled workers, said Carolyn Lee, executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, and a conference speaker. Nationwide, Lee said, the National Association of Manufacturers estimates there are 400,000 open jobs in manufacturing. The industry is going to see that number grow exponentially unless it begins to work on changing the perception of younger generations that working in a manufacturing plant is an acceptable alternative to a job requiring a college degree.
“We have to change the perception, otherwise we’re not going to get parents to be OK with their kids saying, “I’m not going to go to college. I’m going to go to this technical program and enter the workforce.’”